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Summary

The General Health Law of Costa Rica prohibits the personal use of narcotics and other drugs, but does not penalize those who violate this prohibition.  Likewise, Law No. 8204 on Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances, Unauthorized Drugs, Related Activities, Money Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism penalizes all activities related to the production, commerce, and trafficking of such narcotics and substances, but does not punish their personal consumption.  Prior Law No. 7093 of 1988 also did not prohibit or penalize the personal use of illegal drugs.  However, a comprehensive amendment promulgated by Law No. 7233 of 1991 imposed fines for the consumption of unauthorized drugs in public places.  Both Law No. 7093 and 7233 were superseded by the current Law No. 8204.

A bill that would regulate the production of cannabis and hemp plants for medical and industrial purposes was debated in the Legislative Assembly in December of 2014  However, that bill has yet to pass.  In January 2016 a criminal tribunal in the city of Alajuela acquitted an attorney who had planted marijuana for personal consumption.

I.  Introduction

Controlled substances are governed in Costa Rica by the General Health Law[1] and Law No. 8204 on Narcotics (estupefacientes) and Psychotropic Substances, Unauthorized Drugs, Related Activities, Money Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism.[2]  Neither of them punish the personal use of unauthorized drugs, as explained below. 

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II.  General Health Law

Article 28 of the General Health Law prohibits the “personal use” of narcotics, and of tranquilizers, stimulants, and hallucinogens that are subject to restricted use under international conventions and by the laws of the country, with the exception of their use for therapeutic reasons and with a medical prescription under the express authorization of the Ministry of Health.[3]  

Similarly, article 127 of the General Health Law prohibits the cultivation, import, export, trafficking and use of papaver somniferum or poppies, erythroxylon coca or coca, cannabis indica and cannabis sativa or cannabis, and all plants and seeds of similar effects that are so declared by the Ministry of Health, and mandates their destruction.[4]   

Although article 28 of the General Health Law specifically prohibits the personal use of narcotics and other drugs, no penalty for its violation is found in the Code.  In contrast, under article 371 of the Code, a penalty of six to twelve years’ imprisonment may be imposed on those who, for whatever reason, grow poppies, coca, cannabis, or plants of similar effect whose cultivation, possession, or trafficking has been prohibited or restricted by the Ministry of Health.[5]     

Article 137 of the General Health Law requires the confiscation and destruction of any drug that is illegally cultivated, possessed, traded, distributed, or stored.[6]

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III.  Statutory Law on Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances

While superseded Law No. 7093 on Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances penalized with eight to twenty years’ imprisonment the illegal cultivation, manufacture, preparation, refining, transport, distribution, storage, and trafficking of drugs and their financing,[7] it did not prohibit or impose penalties for the personal use of illegal drugs.

Law No. 7093 was considerably amended by Law No. 7233 of 1991.[8]  Although the amended Law 7093 did not impose penalties restricting the personal freedom of the drug user for his/her personal use of drugs, it penalized this activity with fines.  Article 24 imposed sixty- to 180-day-fines on persons who consumed or used unauthorized drugs in public places or in public places.  If the person was a minor, the appropriate authorities had to inform the minor’s parents or guardian.[9]

Law No. 7093 was superseded by the current Law No. 8204 on Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances, Unauthorized Drugs, Related Activities, Money Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism, effective January 11, 2002, which regulates narcotics (estupefacientes), psychotropic substances, and drugs likely to cause physical or psychological dependencies.[10]  Law No. 8204 contains no provision penalizing the personal use of unauthorized drugs, but imposes the penalty of imprisonment for other drug-related activities, such as cultivation, production, manufacture, refining, preparation, distribution, commerce, supply, transport, and storage of the drugs and substances regulated by the Law.[11]   

Moreover, article 79 of Law No. 8204 mandates the promotion and facilitation of free, voluntary placement or outpatient treatment for therapy and rehabilitation in public or private health centers to persons who use unauthorized drugs on the streets or in public places.  If the drug users are minors, the authorities are obliged to inform the National Child Welfare Agency (Patronato Nacional de la Infancia, PANI) of the situation, and PANI will mandate compulsory treatment.[12]  

In 2010 the Office of the Public Prosecutor issued a guideline, Instructivo General No. 02-2010, stating that under article 28 of the Constitution, no one may be disturbed or prosecuted for any act that does not infringe the law.  The guideline also invokes article 39 of the Constitution, stating that one will be made to suffer a penalty except for a crime, offense, or fault sanctioned by a previous law.  Based on these constitutional provisions, the guideline instructs court prosecutors to reject police reports of possession of drugs for personal use.[13]  Another guideline, Instrucción General 01/2011, instructs prosecutors to assess police reports of confiscated unauthorized drugs, to remit the drugs for destruction, and to order the immediate release of the detainee when the case is not connected to any criminal activity; otherwise, criminal proceedings will be initiated.[14]

Law No. 9161 added article 77bis to Law No. 8204, imposing a penalty of three to eight years’ imprisonment, rather than the longer term of eight to twenty years imposed by article 77, on a woman who brings narcotics or psychotropic substances into a prison if the following circumstances are met: the woman is in poverty; the woman is the head of a household in vulnerable conditions; the woman has under her care minors, elderly people, or people with any disability; or the woman is elderly in conditions of vulnerability.  The judge, after finding that any of the above circumstances are present, may order that the penalty be served by house arrest or probation.[15] 

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IV.  Recent Developments

A.  Proposed Legislation

In 2014 a bill to regulate the use of cannabis for therapeutic purposes, the Draft Law on Research, Regulation, and Control of Cannabis and Hemp Plants for Medical, Food, and Industrial Uses, was submitted to the Legislative Assembly.[16]  Although the bill was initially debated during an extraordinary session of the Legislative Assembly in December of 2014,[17] it has not yet been approved.[18]  

B.  Criminal Tribunal Ruling

According to a report in La Nación, a criminal tribunal in Alajuela, the second most important Costa Rican city and the capital of the province of the same name, has acquitted a lawyer who was arrested four times for growing marijuana for personal consumption.  After the verdict, the accused person’s attorneys explained that growing marijuana in someone’s home for personal consumption carries no criminal penalties or economic sanctions.  Article 58 of Law No. 8204 penalizes with eight to fifteen years’ imprisonment anyone who “without authorization distributes, trades, supplies, manufactures, develops, refines, transforms, extracts, prepares, cultivates, produces, transports, stores or sales drugs or cultivates the plants from which such substances are obtained,” they said, but article 58 does not penalize the personal consumption of drugs.  In addition, they argued that the only thing that the authorities can do if they find crops of drugs for personal use is to confiscate and destroy them, as required by article 137 of the General Health Law.[19]

The tribunal’s decision was based on the fact that it could not be proved that the drugs were destined for sale and trafficking.  The judge explained that, although growing marijuana is in fact illegal, it is not a crime if it is not sold.  Moreover, the judge added that if the attorney continued growing marijuana, the appropriate authorities would continue confiscating it. 

The fifty-six-year-old lawyer, who had been arrested four times for the same charges of growing marijuana in his home located thirty meters from the tribunal, was facing twenty-four years of imprisonment.  The tribunal’s ruling was a two-to-one decision of a three-judge panel.  The dissenting judge argued that he reached the conclusion that with the number of plants the defendant had planted, he could have manufactured 5,000 marijuana cigarettes.[20]

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Prepared by Norma Gutierrez
Senior Foreign Law Specialist
July 2016


[1] Ley General de Salud, No. 5395, La Gaceta [L.G.], Nov. 24, 1973, http://www.pgrweb.go.cr/scij/Busqueda/ Normativa/Normas/nrm_texto_completo.aspx?param1=NRTC&nValor1=1&nValor2=6581&nValor3=96425&strTipM=TC, archived at https://perma.cc/BT4D-9V4E.  The text of the superseded health code, Código Sanitario, L.G., Mar. 15, 1944, is not available.

[2] Ley sobre Estupefacientes, Sustancias Psicotrópicas, Drogas de Uso no Authorizados, Actividades Conexas, Legitimación de Capitales y Financiamiento al Terrorismo, No. 8204, L.G., Jan. 1, 2002, http://www.pgrweb.go. cr/scij/Busqueda/Normativa/Normas/nrm_texto_completo.aspx?param1=NRTC&nValor1=1&nValor2=48392&nValor3=91617&strTipM
=TC
, archived at https://perma.cc/57KH-5QN5.  Law No. 8204 comprehensively amended Law No. 7786, Ley sobre Estupefacientes, Sustancias Psicotrópicas, Drogas de Uso no Authorizados, Actividades Conexas, No. 7786, L.G., May 15, 1998.

[3] Ley General de Salud art. 28. 

[4] Id. art. 127. 

[5] Id. art. 371. 

[6] Id. art. 137.

[7] Ley sobre Estupefacientes, Sustancias Psicotrópicas, Drogas de Uso no Autorizado y Actividades Conexas, No. 7093, art. 16, L.G., May 2, 1988, published in Código Penal con Índice Alfabético y Leyes Conexas (San José, Editorial Porvenir 1988).  A prior drug statute, Ley sobre Drogas Estupefaciented, enacted on September 29, 1930, with an unknown official publication date, is not available. 

[8] Ley sobre Estupefacientes, Sustancias Psicotrópicas, Drogas de Uso no Autorizado y Actividades Conexas, No. 7093, as amended by Law No. 7233, L.G., May 21, 1991, http://www.pgrweb.go.cr/scij/Busqueda/Normativa/ Normas/nrm_texto_completo.aspx?param1=NRTC&nValor1=1&nValor2=4971&nValor3=78293&strTipM=TC, archived at https://perma.cc/KQ25-6B6D

[9] Id. art. 24.

[10] Ley No. 8204, L.G., Jan. 1, 2002.

[11] Id. art. 58.

[12] Id. arts. 3 & 79.

[13] Fiscalía General de la República, Ministerio Público de Costa Rica, Poder Judicial, Instructivo General No. 02-2010 (Oct. 2010), available at http://www.druglawreform.info/images/stories/Fiscalia_-_Instructivo_General_-_02-2010.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/XFV5-HHNH.

[14] Fiscalía General de la República, Ministerio Público de Costa Rica, Poder Judicial, Instrucción General 01/2011 (Nov. 2011), available at http://www.druglawreform.info/images/stories/Fiscalia_-_Instructivo_General_-_01-2011.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/8PPL-PVMU.

[15] Ley No. 9161, Reforma de la Ley No. 8204 sobre Estupefacientes, Sustancias Psicotrópicas, Drogas de Uso no Autorizado, Actividades Conexas, Legitimación de Capitales y Financiamiento de Terrorismo, L.G., Sept. 23, 2013, http://www.pgrweb.go.cr/scij/Busqueda/Normativa/Normas/nrm_texto_completo.aspx?param1=NRTC&nValor1=1&nValor2=75699&
nValor3=93995&strTipM=TC
, archived at https://perma.cc/C6S9-6EPL.

[16] Proyecto de Ley, Ley para la Investigación, Regulación y Control de las Plantas Cannabis y Cáñamo para Uso Medicinal, Alimentario e Industrial, Exp. No. 19.256 (introduced Aug. 14, 2014, by Marvin Atencio Delgado, Diputado), available at http://www.druglawreform.info/images/stories/Proyecto-19256_Cannabis.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/3MD6-XM63.

[17] Andrés Martínez, Gobierno Abre Debate en Congreso sobre Legislación de Marihuana Medicinal, Teletica.com (Dec. 15, 2014), available at http://www.teletica.com/Noticias/75247-Gobierno-abre-debate-en-Congreso-sobre-legalizacion-de-marihuana-medicinal.note.aspx, archived at https://perma.cc/J84S-946A.

[18] Telephone Interview with Centro de Investigación Legislativa del Departamento de Servicios Bibliotecarios, Documentación e Información [Center for Legal Research of the Costa Rican Legislative Assembly] (June 27, 2016). 

[19] See Katherine Chaves R., Siembra de Cannabis Para Consumo Personal No Está Penalizada, La Nación (Jan. 20, 2016), http://www.nacion.com/sucesos/juicios/Siembra-cannabis-consumo-personal-penalizada_0_15376 46251.html, archived at https://perma.cc/9B7D-P33X.

[20] Costa Rica: Tribunal Absuelve a Abogado que Cultiva Marihuana en su Casa en Alajuela, Entorno Inteligente (Jan. 19, 2016), http://www.entornointeligente.com/articulo/7726536/COSTA-RICA-Tribunal-absuelve-a-abogado-que-cultiva-marihuana-en-su-casa-en-Alajuela, archived at https://perma.cc/J955-EJHR.