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Colombia’s capital banks on marijuana cure for hard drug addicts

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.

And while marijuana has been getting most of the attention in Bogotá’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 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.

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 Acción Técnica 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.”