President Obama flew into Mexico City Thursday to, among other things, restate his support for the existing drug war paradigm as he reiterated his backing for Mexican President Felipe Calderón's bloody war against Mexico's wealthy, powerful, and violent drug trafficking organizations, the so-called cartels. It's too bad he didn't schedule his trip for a few days earlier, because then he could have seen a new drug policy paradigm being born.
Earlier in the week, the Mexican Congress held a three-day debate on the merits of decriminalizing the personal use of marijuana. The debate, known as the Forums on the Regulation of Cannabis in Mexico, brought together government officials, elected representatives, academics and experts in a lively discussion of Mexican marijuana policy.
Although Mexico is a socially conservative country, and marijuana use is popularly -- if unfairly -- associated with lower-class criminality, the blood-stained fall-out from President Calderón's war against the cartels is creating social and political space for reform discussions that would have been impossible a decade ago. Since Calderón unleashed the Mexican army against the cartels at the beginning of 2007, the death toll has climbed to more than 10,000, and the spectacular, exemplary violence has shocked Mexican society.
While President Calderón has proposed legislation that would offer pot smokers treatment instead of jail, Calderón and his ruling conservative National Action Party (PAN) have stopped short of calling for legalization or decriminalization. The left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) supports decriminalization, while the smaller Social Democratic Party (PSD) has called for the decriminalization of the possession of all drugs.
In 2006, Calderón's predecessor, Vicente Fox, moved to pass decriminalization legislation. But he pulled the bill after being pressured by the US.
While Obama has not weighed in on marijuana legalization or decriminalization in Mexico, the DEA has. Either course would mark "a failure" of US and Mexican drug policy, DEA chief of intelligence Anthony Placido told El Universal Wednesday. "The legalization of marijuana in Mexico would create more misery and more addicts," he said. Nor would it weaken the cartels, he argued; instead, they would simply shift their attention to other illegal activities.
''Global Marijuana Day'' demonstration in Mexico City, May 2008
PSD Deputy Elsa Conde last year introduced three bills that would legalize medical marijuana, legalize hemp, and decriminalize marijuana possession, but the debate in Congress this week does not pertain to any particular piece of legislation. Instead, it lays the groundwork for future policy changes. Lawmakers have said they wanted to hear various viewpoints before considering any changes in the law.
Even the ruling PAN appears open to some sort of reform. "It's clear that a totally prohibitive policy has not been a solution for all ills," said Interior Department official Blanca Heredia. "At the same time, it's illusory to imagine that complete legalization of marijuana would be a panacea."
When it came to marijuana, said Heredia, neither total legalization nor prohibition should be the policy, but something in between. "Every new solution is necessarily partial," she said. "Every decision runs risks and brings with it new problems. We have to try to balance things carefully, to rigorously analyze the impact that different proposals would have on the drug market and the organized crime industry."
Javier González Garza, leader of the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) in the Chamber of Deputies, said that while he favored decriminalizing marijuana, the topic should be discussed separately from other types of drugs, such as cocaine, heroin, and the synthetics.
"What we don't want is the criminalization of our youth for consuming or carrying marijuana," said González. "That is the central point. If we made consuming or carrying marijuana a serious crime, there aren't enough jails in Mexico to hold everybody."
While the politicians talked politics, others took the discussion to loftier realms. Philosopher Rodolfo Vázquez Cardoso questioned whether it is ethically justifiable to criminalize the possession of drugs for personal use. He noted that while the theme of most discussion was the harmful effects of drug use, the central theme should instead be that of freedom.
"There is no legitimate objective of the judicial system to promote good living or virtue because that enters into conflict with the capacity of each individual to choose freely and rationally how to live his life and choose the ideals of virtue in accord with his own preferences," said Vázquez. Drug prohibition, he added, is based on "repressive paternalism" and violates the principle of personal autonomy.
For Ana Paula Hernández of the Angélica Foundation, human rights and the rule of law were key concerns. She cited the "unmeasured militarization of the country as a consequence of the war against organized crime" and warned that those most affected by the drug war were the poor peasant communities that were "the weakest link" of the drug production chain.
"These ideas about controlling prohibited drugs are innovative," said political scientist and drug policy expert Luis Astorga. "When it comes to drugs, we don't have to follow the path of the United States, which hasn't worked. We need to develop ideas and policies distinct from those of the US. We have a very good opportunity to do something independent, as they have in Europe and Canada," he said.
But Armando Patrón Vargas of the National Council Against Addiction in the Health Department said decriminalization wasn't necessary because Mexico doesn't criminalize drug addiction. "I don't see any urgent need to modify the status [of marijuana] and decriminalize use," he told the forum. The Mexican government guarantees treatment of addicts, he said, even if the investment in treatment is inadequate.
Dr. Humberto Brocca, a student of herbal and traditional medicine and a member of the pro-reform Grupo Cáñamo (Cannabis Group) told the forum it was time to end the prejudice and social stigma against pot smokers and urged legislators to be fearless in moving toward regulation "because fear is not a good advisor."
Brocca told the Chronicle Wednesday that while he did not expect quick change in the drug laws, the forum was a start. "It means that society is demanding some truth about important issues," he said.
Even the half-measure of decriminalization would make a big difference, he said. "It would take cannabis out of the criminal circuit and it would lower prices and guarantee good quality," Brocca said. "It would also remove cannabis from its role of rebellious banner for youth, thus making it less attractive for them. It would also help law enforcement to not waste its time on petty issues and focus on important ones, like going after the traffickers. And it would liberate the many people who currently serve time for nothing."
Mexico's lawmakers have had their chance to discuss marijuana law reform. Now it is time to craft and pass the necessary legislation to put those reforms in place. But with mid-term elections coming up in a couple of months, little is likely to happen before then.