Monday, May 4, 2009

Mexico Reefer Madness

In the Face of a Crisis in Drug-Related Violence, Mexico Should
Reconsider Its Policy Criminalizing Marijuana.

Last month, Mexico's Congress convened a special forum to consider
marijuana policy reform as a remedy for that country's current crisis
of violence. The forum bucked a century of staunch prohibitionist
history in Mexico, a history that has contributed to the continued
criminalization of marijuana use throughout North America.

From early on, marijuana was portrayed in Mexico as a frightening
substance that produced madness in its users. In 1897, Revista
Medica, one of Mexico's leading scientific journals, reported that
marijuana produced "pleasant visions and hallucinations," an
"expansion of the spirit that leads to exaltation" but also an
"impulsive delirium" with often fatal consequences: "It is true that
in other regions the delirium that is produced by marijuana is a
turbulent one, but in our country it reaches the point of furor,
terrible and blind impulse, and leads to murder."

Although use of the drug was not widespread at the time, the plant
was increasingly seen as a national menace and, in 1920, was banned.
Gradually, the idea that marijuana was dangerous seeped into the
United States, fostering American notions of "reefer madness" and
eventually helping to inspire marijuana prohibition here as well (in 1937).

Since then, Mexico has continued to be tough on marijuana, even in
the face of softening U.S. attitudes toward the drug. The last time
widespread sentiment for marijuana policy reform emerged in the U.S.,
it was Mexico that leveled some of the harshest criticism against the
trend. "We don't accept that marijuana is less important than
heroin," Mexican Atty. Gen. Pedro Ojeda Paullada declared in 1974.

A few years later, a scandal over use of the herbicide paraquat on
Mexican marijuana fields produced a similar response from Ojeda's
successor, Oscar Flores Sanchez. Paraquat spraying, which often
failed to completely destroy the targeted crops, led to the sale of
poison-soaked pot to unknowing consumers in both countries.

Public outcry in the U.S. inspired congressional action that
threatened to eliminate funding for the program if the paraquat
spraying continued. Behind closed doors, Flores went ballistic,
warning that if the United States refused to back Mexico's war on
marijuana, Mexico might go soft on heroin, the major U.S. priority of that era.

Mexico is now being forced to reevaluate these policies. Ironically,
decades of being "tough" on drugs has produced a new link between
marijuana and violence, but of a different kind. Indeed, the nation's
"drug-related" violence today might more accurately be termed
"drug-policy-related" violence.

The mafias behind the current tsunami of killings -- more than 6,000
last year -- are a product of the extraordinary black-market profits
that drug prohibition generates. And because 60% of the profits
earned by Mexican traffickers come from marijuana sales, legalization
in both Mexico and the U.S. would deliver a potentially debilitating
blow to these powerful gangs.

Unfortunately, the Mexican public remains overwhelmingly opposed to
marijuana legalization, with only 14% in favor, according to a
February poll by Parametria, a public opinion research firm based in
Mexico City. According to CBS News, by contrast, nearly 40% of
Americans say they would favor legalization if the drug could be
taxed and proceeds used to fund state budgets. Given those numbers,
it is hardly surprising that many Mexican legislators chose not to
attend last month's forum.

Indeed, full legalization apparently had few supporters at the forum
in April. Instead, many delegates backed half-measures, such as the
formal decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana for personal
use. Such measures, though a significant departure from the past,
nevertheless promise to do very little to alleviate Mexico's current
crisis of violence.

Although decriminalization would free up law enforcement to
concentrate on trafficking, this would merely exacerbate the
fundamental paradox at the heart of drug policy -- that by raising
prices, law enforcement increases the economic incentive to traffic in drugs.

Thus, unless decriminalization is accompanied by a successful program
of "education" that persuades people to abstain from using a drug
that is relatively innocuous in comparison with, say, alcohol or
tobacco, it won't do much to stem the violence. Education efforts
should instead focus on undermining old prejudices that prevent
meaningful reform in Mexico and the United States.

Last month's forum at least opened a dialogue among Mexicans. That is
certainly a step in the right direction. But if we hope to use
legislative reform to reduce Mexico's drug-policy-related violence,
Mexico and the United States need to go all the way on marijuana legalization.

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