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Where is Costa Rica in Terms of Global Marijuana Use and Production?

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According to the Beckley Foundation’s Global Cannabis Commission Report, marijuana is the most widely used illegal drug in the world. Where is Costa Rica relation to consumption, production and legal status of the world’s favorite and most commonly used illicit drug?

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) puts the annual rate of pot smoking among people in Costa Rica between the ages of 12 and 70 at one percent. Compared to marijuana use in far more developed nations, cannabis culture in Costa Rica is just not very prevalent. Take Canada and the United States, for example; their respective prevalence of marijuana use is 12.6 and 13.7 percent. The prevalence in Mexico is the same as in Costa Rica: just one percent; although the powerful drug cartels in that country deal in massive amounts of it.

In other Central American nations, the rates of marijuana use are even lower than in Costa Rica. Only 0.4 percent in El Salvador and 0.8 percent in Honduras. Nicaragua is slightly higher than Costa Rica. The highest rates in the region are found in Panama (3.6), Guatemala (4.8), and Belize (8.5). In the non-Spanish speaking Caribbean island nations, the prevalence is significantly higher than in Central America, but even in Jamaica -a country that often falls into a dubious stereotype of free-flowing marijuana use- the rate is just under 10 percent, lower than in Canada and the U.S.

The director of the Anti-Drug Institute in Costa Rica, Don Carlos Alvarado, recently spoke to David Delgado of La Nacion and shed some light into the patterns of marijuana consumption and production in Costa Rica:

In the current global market of Cannabis sativa, most of the herb smoked in Costa Rica can be labeled as “light”, meaning that it has a low content of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive substance enjoyed by users. These plants are commonly grown outdoors and in low altitude lands. At a higher rung of the pricing ladder is what Tico law enforcement officers refer to as “high red”, which is sometimes massively farmed in the mountains. Then there is the hydroponically cultivated marijuana that has a stronger level of THC, and which requires a fair amount of gardening care.

Affluent and Upper-Class Users

Director Alvarado called attention to the hydroponic crops, which are fast replacing the high red strains and are often referred to as “creepy” or “cripy” (a shortened anglicism of sorts for “Kryptonite”, a potent hydroponic strain). According to Director Alvarado, the hydroponic strains present a burgeoning and very lucrative market in Costa Rica, particularly among affluent Tico smokers with disposable income. La Nacion indicated that the prohibitive cost of hydroponic marijuana in Costa Rica makes it an exclusive consumer product among high-income tourists, expats and upper-class Ticos. The street price of an ounce of these indoor strains is 100,000 colones (about $200), and ready-to-smoke cigarettes are routinely sold at $20.

La Nacion pointed out that while most pot smokers in Costa Rica consume the outdoor and regular variety of marijuana, the recent raids by Fuerza Publica and anti-narcotics agents of hydroponic labs indicate some level of prosperity in the market. Lab analysis of some of the plants confiscated show 30 percent THC concentrations on some strains, compared to the one percent THC that most Ticos usually smoke for about $2 to $3 per hand-rolled cigarette.

The first indoor grow house bust in Costa Rica coincided with the booming real estate bonanza and economic prosperity in North America that brought an influx of expatriates flush with cash to our country. In 2003, police officers raided a hydroponic lab located in an upscale neighborhood in San Pedro, not far from the main campus of the University of Costa Rica. According to a news report in the newspaper Al Dia, a Canadian man known as “Jake Nort” (his last name is Webb) was the farmer in charge of the indoor operation. On that day, the police confiscated about a million dollars in plants. The investigation revealed that the Jake Nort-grown strains were sold in the most upscale bars, nightclubs and expatriate hangouts in Costa Rica.

Over the last two years, law enforcement agents have shut down more than a dozen indoor operations around the country, many of them are run by foreigners.

Ticos Call for Legalization

Proponents of legalization in Costa Rica call attention to the illicit market and the criminal elements it attracts. Enforcement of marijuana use in Costa Rica tends to be uneven, according to users who complain that while consumption is decriminalized, police officers confiscate their personal stashes due to corruption.

One user and supporter interviewed by La Nacion explained that he used to grow plants for his own consumption, but that he stopped doing so for two reasons: first, he fears that law enforcement will label him as a producer or trafficker; second, he states that when he grew his own he used to smoke too much. He now smokes far less than before, but he is forced to purchase in the black market where he feels there is an ambiance of criminality.

The 53-year old man mentioned above was one of the few who showed up for the Global Marijuana March on May 5th in downtown San Jose. As previously reported in The Costa Rica Star, the march was canceled once organizers found out that dissenters and agent provocateurs had infiltrated their ranks. Either that, or they got too paranoid.

Safety is at the heart of the Cannmbio movement, a group that promotes a conscious choice by adults to consume marijuana without fear and to change the existing drug policy. To this extent, the administration of President Laura Chinchilla has expressed intention to conduct open dialogue about policy not just in Costa Rica, but the entire region. It may be a difficult proposition: a recent survey by Unimer, commissioned by La Nacion, revealed that seven out of ten Ticos fear that consumption will increase should legalization take place, and 50 percent of those polled think that illicit trafficking will continue and even increase despite legal status.

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