Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Mexican Drug Decriminalization May Set Example
In Decriminalizing Much Drug Use, Mexico May Be Setting an Example
By Ioan Grillo / Mexico City
Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2009
No dreadlocked revelers smoked celebratory reefers in the streets, no
armies of conservatives protested, the Mexican media raised no
hullabaloo. Quietly and with little ado, Mexico last week enacted a law
to decriminalize possession of small amounts of all major narcotics,
including marijuana, cocaine, heroin, ecstasy and crystal meth. Anyone
caught in Mexico with two or three joints or about four lines of cocaine
can no longer be arrested, fined or imprisoned. However, police will
give them the address of the nearest rehab clinic and advise them to get
Most surprising was how easily and painlessly the reform slipped into
Mexican law. The bill was originally filed in October by President
Felipe Calderón, a social conservative who is waging a bloody
military crackdown on drug cartels. Congress then approved the bill in
April — as Mexico's swine-flu outbreak dominated media attention.
And finally the law went into the books without any major protests
either in Mexico or north of the border.
Washington's silence on the issue is telling. In 2006, Mexico's Congress
approved a bill with almost exactly the same provisions. However, the
Administration of George W. Bush immediately complained about the
measure and then President Vicente Fox refused to sign it into law. In
contrast, officials of the Obama Administration have been decidedly
guarded in commenting on the new legislation. When asked about it in his
visit to Mexico last month, drug czar Gil Kerlikowske said he would
"wait and see." Many view such a change as evidence that Washington is
finally reconsidering its confrontational war on drugs, four decades
after Richard Nixon declared it. "There is a growing opinion that the
use of force has simply failed to destroy the drug trade and other
measures are needed," says Mexican political analyst José Antonio
Crespo. "It appears that the White House may be starting to adjust its
Another reason for the ambivalence is that the new law is predicted to
have little effect on the Mexican street. Police officers would rarely
arrest people caught with small amounts of drugs anyway, although they
would often use it as an opportunity to extract handsome bribes.
Mexican officials argue the legislation is designed less to change the
situation than to clarify the law and go after the traffickers harder.
Indeed, while using small amounts of drugs may now be fine, selling
drugs is still illegal. The law clearly states any person dealing
narcotics will be sent to prison. Any place that sells drugs will be
liable for punishment, a provision that is likely to prevent the opening
of any Amsterdam-style "coffee shops" in the country. The new law also
empowers city and state police to investigate dealers, which was
formerly the reserve of the federales. Street-corner pushers have
exploded across Mexico in recent years while the number of hard-drug
addicts has shot up to 460,000, according to a survey last year.
Still, groups pushing to legalize marijuana north of the Rio Grande see
Mexico's change as an encouraging sign for their own struggle. Allen St.
Pierre, head of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana
Laws, says the Mexican law is part of changing global attitudes to the
issue. "Cultural social norms are shifting around the world and in the
United States. There will likely come a point when the majority see that
prohibition is expensive and simply doesn't work," he says. St. Pierre
points out that 13 U.S. states have already decriminalized marijuana and
California has legalized it for limited medical use.
Mexico's example could also influence other developing countries in
their drug policies, St. Pierre says. "Governments seeing that
Washington did not condemn Mexico for its law may be bolder in their own
legislation. Countries are becoming aware that the United States with
its millions of drug users should not be judging them on their
policies," he says. In February, the former presidents of Brazil,
Colombia and Mexico signed a statement calling for decriminalization of
several narcotics. "Current drug-repression policies are firmly rooted
in prejudices, fears and ideological visions," it said. (On Aug. 25, the
Argentine supreme court essentially legalized the private use of small
amounts of marijuana.)
But some see the Mexican laws as a step back rather than forward.
Critics in Mexico say that decriminalizing users but not sellers will
only strengthen the trafficking mafias that are waging a bloody turf war
in Mexico. More than 12,000 people have been killed in drug-related
violence in the past three years. The cartels make an estimated $30
billion smuggling narcotics north to American users and some $5 billion
more selling to the Mexican market. "It is illogical to have a law that
allows drug consumption but does not control where it is coming from,"
says Representative Enrique Cardenas, who voted against the bill. "It
will only fuel corruption and dealing."
http://www.time. com/time/ world/article/ 0,8599,1918725, 00.html