Pubdate: Tue, 07 May 2013
Source: Miami Herald (FL)
Copyright: 2013 Miami Herald Media Co.
Author: Jim Wyss


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 coming weeks, Bogota is embarking on a controversial public health 
project where it will begin supplying 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 panhandling and crime to support their 
habit, turning pockets 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."

Authorities believe that by supplying addicts with quality-controlled 
medical marijuana with a high THC content (the mind-altering 
component of marijuana) and that is specifically selected to relieve 
the anxiety that comes with kicking bazuco, they might be able to 
rescue some of them.

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 that 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 sulfuric acid. Smoked, it 
provides a powerful high that's whiplash brief. Perez said the only 
thing harder to kick might be heroin. And abandoning the vice usually 
requires interning the addict in a treatment facility and providing 
intensive therapy.

"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, the head of Accion Tecnica Social, a 
non-profit that is working with the district on 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. A 2002 ethnographic study of Jamaican 
crack users by the dean of the Iowa College of Nursing, for example, 
found that of 14 women who gave up the drug, 13 attributed their 
success to using marijuana.

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 counseling, 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 

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.

While the mechanics of growing and distributing the medical marijuana 
for the city's project haven't all been worked out, Ramirez said one 
idea is to create a type of match-making service, where "personal 
dose" home-growers provide portions of their harvest to help bazuco 
addicts. But the city cannot legally hand out marijuana.

Camilo Borrero is one of the driving forces behind the program and 
perhaps its best advertisement. Now 40, Borrero said he grew up in a 
family full of addicts. By the age of five, he'd had his first drink, 
by seven he'd smoked pot, and by 12 he was using cocaine regularly. 
He managed to clean up for a few years until he accidentally smoked 
bazuco believing it was marijuana. Within two years, he went from 
being a university student with his own business to living on the 
streets and wandering the city looking for his next fix.

In 1999, he hit bottom and decided to kick the habit. He said he 
cycled through almost 20 drug-treatment programs, clinics and 
psychiatrists but never managed to give up bazuco for more than three 
months. Desperate for a solution, he recalled that in his younger 
years he'd kicked cocaine by smoking pot. He tried the therapy again 
and it worked, he said. He's been off bazuco for three and a half 
years, and he gives credit to his carefully regimented marijuana consumption.

"When I cured myself, I said 'I have to share this with everyone,'" 
he said. "My life began three and a half years ago."

Borrero's company, Cannamedic, grows medical-quality marijuana to 
make pomades and oils for arthritis, among other products. Cannamedic 
will also be one of the cannabis growers for the city's program.

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."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom