Parts of Bogata — like this area known as “Bronx Street” — have been become wastelands for junkies. To combat the problem, the city plans to distribute free marijuana to 300 addicts of bazuco, a cocaine derivative.
BOGOTA, COLOMBIA— Marijuana has long been accused of being a gateway to deadlier vices. But could cannabis be a swinging door that might also lead people away from hard drugs? That’s what this capital city is trying to find out.
In a controversial public health project, Bogota will supply marijuana to 300 addicts of bazuco, a cheap cocaine derivative that generates crack-like highs and is as addictive as heroin.
Bogota has 7,500 bazuco users among its 9,500 homeless population, said Ruben Dario Ramirez, director of the Center for the Study and Analysis of Coexistence and Security, which is spearheading the project.
Addicts are often driven to crime to support their habit, turning parts of this thriving city into bazuco wastelands where junkies huddle to smoke the drug. In the last three years, 277 homeless people have been murdered, he said.
For the most desperate users, the cannabis cure may be the only way out.
“People accuse us of turning bazuco addicts into marijuana addicts but that’s an urban myth,” he said. “This program is about reducing personal harm and the risks to society.”
We want people to quit a substance that is very, very damaging and transition to something less dangerous and which will allow them to function in society.” Julian Andres Quintero, head of the non-profit Accion Tecnica Social
Authorities believe they might rescue some of the addicts by supplying them with quality controlled medical marijuana with a high THC content (the mind-altering component of marijuana), specifically selected to relieve the anxiety that comes with kicking bazuco.
The idea is controversial. Critics have accused Ramirez and his colleagues of smoking their own medicine and say the project risks making city government an enabler.
“This plan is completely absurd,” said Augusto Perez, the director of Nuevos Rumbos, a Colombian think tank that researches drugs and addiction. “It’s as if they didn’t know that everyone who smokes bazuco already smokes marijuana. By giving them marijuana, all they will be doing is saving the (addicts) money so they can buy more bazuco.”
Bazuco is made from the residue left over after processing cocaine and it’s often mixed with kerosene and sulphuric acid. It provides a powerful high that’s whiplash brief. Perez said the only thing harder to kick might be heroin. Abandoning the vice usually requires intensive therapy at a treatment facility.
“I give this program zero probabilities of working,” he said.
But advocates say the traditional medical community is stuck in its thinking.
Julian Andres Quintero, head of the non-profit Accion Tecnica Social, which is involved with the initiative, said most medical professionals think of drug cessation as the only answer.
“This project is not aimed at getting people to quit using,” he said. “This is about reducing risks and mitigating the damage. We want people to quit a substance that is very, very damaging and transition to something less dangerous and which will allow them to function in society.”
Marijuana has already been used as a hard-drug alternative in Canada, Brazil and Jamaica, he said. And while marijuana has been getting most of the attention in Bogota’s drug initiative, it’s just part of the equation. Addicts will also be receiving counselling, job training, emergency shelter and other services that are already part of the city’s social safety net.
Colombia isn’t known for having liberal views on drugs. The world’s top cocaine producer, the nation has, with U.S. backing, been engaged in one of the most aggressive, bloody and expensive drug wars in the hemisphere.
But domestically, its laws can seem a bit more like Amsterdam. While smoking and selling weed are illegal, Colombians are allowed to carry small amounts of cocaine and marijuana — or what’s called a “personal dose” — and are also allowed to grow up to 20 marijuana plants for personal consumption.
There are also laws that allow marijuana and other drugs to be prescribed by doctors.
Quintero, with the Accion Tecnica non-profit, said the first phase of the project needs to be successful to silence the critics. He has a tattoo running down his right arm that reads: “Nice people take drugs.” It’s his answer to those who criticize the initiative on moral and ethical grounds.
“For us,” he said, “there’s nothing more ethical than offering someone a solution who has never been able to find one before.”