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The Costa Rica Model: Why Decriminalization of Drug Use Sometimes Isn’t Enough

For a country reeling from drug trade violence, decriminalizing the use of drugs has done little to help.

In Canada, as people continue to die daily due to proliferation of the potent opioid fentanyl, politicians have begun discussing decriminalization of drug use in response. The country also happens to be at a unique locus as it verges on legalizing and regulating cannabis (slated for July 2018). When Canada does reach its legal pot destiny, it will be an experiment those who work in drug policy around the world will have their eyes on. A model of a legalized, regulated system for substances is the panacea that could spell an end for the war on drugs; decriminalization, though progressive in its own rite, only treats one side of the equation, largely leaving the black market in charge of supply.

Portugal is often cited as the primary example of decriminalization. It decriminalized all drugs from cannabis to heroin in 2000 for personal use, but it's not the only nation that has experimented with similar policy. In 1988, Costa Rica officially put in place a policy of decriminalization for use of all drugs. While the Portugal model is praised as a success (and for good reason: It resulted in decreased levels of HIV infection and a drop in overdose deaths), the way decriminalization has played out in Costa Rica is a case study in how this type of drug policy can fail a society it's present in.

This is part of a VICE Canada project investigating the impact of drug policy in Costa Rica:

Part 1: The War on the War on Drugs
Part 2: The Costa Rica Model: Why Decriminalization of Drug Use Sometimes Isn't Enough
Part 3: Inside a Drug Tourism Economy

On a Tuesday morning in San José, Costa Rica, Latin American drug policy expert Ernesto Cortés showed me around an area of the city he lives in locals call " la Zona Roja" (English translation: the Red Zone). There, homeless people lining the sidewalks and open use of crack cocaine—a rock costs less than $1 US—is a common sight. In la Zona Roja, Cortés led me up a narrow staircase into the only official homeless shelter in the country that temporarily houses people overnight after they've been subject to a search.

Inside Costa Rica's only official homeless shelter in San José

The lack of resources dedicated to helping those struggling with addiction at the street level in San José is one example of how Costa Rica's drug policies fall short of addressing important societal issues related to drugs. Around 2010, the US began to target its war on drugs efforts in the Caribbean due to its role in the cocaine trade, and a shift occurred. Central America, including Costa Rica, started to play a bigger role as the bridge for the drug to get to North America from its origins in South America. It's important to remember Costa Rica is one of the most progressive countries in Latin America: It's set to be carbon-neutral by 2021, its education system is impressive, it got rid of its army in 1949. However, since 2010, the country has recently seen a troubling spike in violence related to the illicit drug trade.

From 2013 to 2014 alone, the homicide rate in Costa Rica went up 30 percent, reaching a record high. "We're seeing things we've never seen before… people with bullets through their heads in parked cars," Cortés said. Despite decriminalization of drug use, over the last decade, the prison population has increased at least 50 percent. In 2004, Costa Rica amended its drug policies, dropping fines associated with possession of personal amounts. Though a more recent change in policy made a dent in women's prison populations, today, prisons in Costa Rica remain over 50 percent overcrowded overall—mostly due to the number of incarcerated men.

For Randall Morice, a San José-based psychologist who works at a drug addiction clinic, the effects of his country's flawed drug policy have affected his life firsthand.

"I have a friend of mine who is in jail for that right now… You are putting people that are doing things locally and having a direct relationship with the consumer to 'protect,' but you aren't going after the bad dudes," Morice told VICE. "The international players who bring this all into the country, those are the guys who are dangerous."

Morice, who also used to work at a law firm, said that police in Costa Rica do not have the proper education to deal with the level of organized crime the illicit drug trade has presented the country with and that they are paid poorly. "I saw some scary shit… The police are pretty frustrated that they cannot beat criminality or fight against organized crime, they are just looking for scapegoats to improve their self-esteem."

Bill Bogart, who wrote a book calling for legalization of drugs in Canada, said that the main issue with decriminalizing rather than legalizing and regulating substances is that, as is the case with Costa Rica, the supply side is left untouched. "One of the central goals in legalization and regulation is to get rid of the misery that prohibition has caused… It's generated an illicit market run by the lawless; if we legalize and regulate, we'll confront that kind of market," Bogart told VICE.

Poverty is a societal issue that is intertwined in with the country's complex issues with drugs, with police targeting poverty-stricken areas in urban centres for drug arrests. "If you are a rich kid who does cocaine, no one would care… you have the money to go to parties and raves. The poverty deepens it and makes it worse because of the context of these communities and families deal with it," Cortés said.

Morice said the police's tactics are "criminalizing poverty" and that they are unable to see when individuals are victims to the system.

"They cannot pursue big dealers so they go after small-time dealers, and now we have a prison system filled with a bunch of ladies who were just dealing 20 rocks… But they tell everybody, 'Look, we got this person! We are successes!'"

Though fines were dropped for petty drug possession, police are mandated by law in Costa Rica to confiscate drugs and offer voluntary addiction treatment to anyone they catch holding substances. A single government organization, IAFA, controls drug treatment facilities in the country. Within this system, inpatient is the norm and outpatient is an uncommon practice. Though he now works at a non-governmental organization, ACEID (which translates to Costa Rican Association for the Study and Intervention in Drugs), Cortés used to work for the government from 2010 to 2014 but quit due to "personal ethics." Recently, however, the government approved a harm reduction model that ACEID is involved in.

In Costa Rica, the law allows for compulsory treatment for underage kids, which can include solitary confinement. Cortés said there is a mechanism in the government for the prevention of torture, and that his organization has been trying to get them to look into how drug addictions treatment for underage Costa Ricans works. "They don't have treatment protocols, they don't know what they're doing. The children there are very complicated: They come from the ghettos, they've been exposed to violence. We definitely need a place for them, but this is not the place for them to be."

Another facet of Costa Rica's relationship with drugs is that it is normalized amongst the older generation to not see a differentiation in the level of harm caused by cannabis versus cocaine. Cortés said that if typical Costa Rican parents found a joint in their teenage daughter's room, they would think she was addicted to drugs, ruining her life, and would send her to rehab. In part, he said, it's indicative of a serious generational divide. Though he is 36, he said that those over 30 are generally much more close-minded about drugs than those under 30 in his home country.

Héctor Montiel, a 27-year-old photographer and student from San José who has volunteered for harm reduction groups at music festivals, said that he's also observed that strong generational divide over drugs. "People from my generation are a lot more open-minded about [drug use], but our parents or people from the past generation, they still have taboo; they still have fears and shame to speak about it." Montiel said that the Catholic church's presence in the country has impacted the creation of this dynamic. "It's crazy how the difference is between my parents, me, and my friends; so many people smoke weed now, take cocaine and MDMA, LSD is very, very popular."

Over 70 percent of Costa Rica's population is Roman Catholic. Dr. Ruben Baler, who works for the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) in the US, explained how the phenomenon of religious affiliation can create stigma to drugs. "There is a metaphysical aspect to the brain that has to rule with all these other aspects you cannot measure that come from either god or another entity. That's where the stigma comes from. And in countries with a very heavy religious history and tradition… That's really the wall we hit when we're trying to de-stigmatize these issues."

For Cortés, it's an issue that has affected his work. Costa Rica is one of the only governments in the world where the Catholic church is literally part of it. "I get in the government, and I thought was going to be the best place to be… and I found out it's too hard to change things from the inside."

Cortés said that the legal weed system Canada is about to embark on likely won't happen for a couple of decades in Costa Rica. "If we legalize weed, we will not stop the violence and murders because this is mostly associated with cocaine in international traffic." He praised a campaign to call for the legalization and regulation of cocaine that could spell the end of these kinds of societal issues in his country and others in Latin America.

Though Portugal's system has helped to lower overdose deaths and contraction of HIV, the issues that have manifested in Latin America as a result of the war are completely different. "Nobody in the US cares about regulating cocaine because they don't produce cocaine… How are we going to deal with transit countries like Costa Rica? [Source and transit countries] are getting all the death, and that's a big issue," Cortes said. "If we want to stop the violence, we have to start thinking of legalization."

Follow Allison Tierney on Twitter .