In Costa Rica, any behaviour related with the production and commercialisation of illicit drugs is considered to be a serious felony and is punished with a minimum of 8 years in prison, without taking into consideration the nature of the crime committed or whether the person sentenced is in a situation of vulnerability. A small reform in the Costa Rican criminal drug law (Law 8204), aims to include proportionality and a gender approach, the objective being to decrease prison sentences for vulnerable women who enter drugs in a men’s prison.

The bill 17980 – called “Reform of the law on narcotics, psychotropic substances, banned drugs, related activities, money laundering and financing of terrorism, Law Nb. 8204, adopted on 25th December 2001 to introduce proportionality and gender specify” – was submitted to the Commission on Security and Drug Trafficking of the Legislative Assembly in June 2012 by the Party of National Liberation and the Public Defence of the Judiciary. This project adds a subparagraph (bis) to article 77 of the Law 8204, which aims to decrease the sentences for introducing drugs in penitentiary centres from 8 to 20 years’ imprisonment (as they were contemplated in the law) to sentences of 3 to 8 years’ imprisonment, or to even consider alternative sentences to prison when women fulfil the following criteria: 

a) She is  living in a situation of poverty.  

b) She is head of the household in a situation of vulnerability.

c) She is responsible of minors, elder people or people with any kind of disability or dependence.

d) She is an elder person in a situation of vulnerability.

Discussions on this bill in the Legislative Assembly lasted a little more than a year, and the bill was passed during the second debate held on 31st July 2013, and was clearly supported by Parliamentarians from different political parties.

According to a study conducted in 2012, 65% of the 780 women currently incarcerated in the Buen Pastor Institutional Centre were held for breaking the law on narcotics. Of these, 23.5% (120) were condemned for smuggling drugs in prison, and this was their first ever offence. Most of these women are heads of household, living in poverty and are responsible for one or more children whose personal and family development is seriously affected as a result of the enforced separation from their mothers.

This bill is a first step towards the legal recognition of gender-specific issues. This is consistent with some key international women rights instruments, such as the United Nations rules for the treatment of women prisoners and non-custodial measures for women offenders (also called the Bangkok Rules)

“Rule 61: When sentencing women offenders, courts shall have the power to consider mitigating factors such as lack of criminal history and relative non severity and nature of the criminal conduct, in the light of women’s caretaking responsibilities and typical backgrounds”

We welcome this reform in Costa Rican legislation and expect that this is the beginning of a trend towards a human rights approach in Costa Rican drug policies. This is a clear example of how drug policies should not be assessed through drug seizures, arrests or convictions, but rather through the protection of the most vulnerable population groups, who are currently attacked by disproportionate drug control legislation that openly criminalises poverty. This drug law reform is definitely a good alternative to the war on drugs.

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