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, Bogotá 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 Pérez, 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. Pérez 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.
Julián Andrés Quintero, the head of Acción Técnica 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.