Late last week, both houses of the Mexican Congress approved a bill that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs. The measure is part of a broader bill aimed at small-scale drug dealing and rationalizing Mexico's struggle against violent drug trafficking organizations.
The bill was sponsored by President Felipe Calderón, but support for it from his ruling National Action Party (PAN) has dwindled. Still, most observers who spoke to the Chronicle this week think he will sign the bill.
The Mexican Congress passed similar legislation in 2006, but then President Vicente Fox refused to sign it after hearing protests from the Bush administration. This time, though, there has not been a peep out of Washington either for or against the bill.
Among the bill's main provisions:
- Decriminalizes "personal use" amounts of drugs;
- Recognizes harm reduction as a guiding principle;
- Does not require forced drug treatment for "personal use" possessors;
- Recognizes traditional cultural drug use;
- Allows states and municipalities to prosecute small-time drug dealing ("narcomenudeo"), an offense which currently is handled exclusively by federal authorities;
- Allows police to make drug buys to build cases.
The amounts of various drugs that are decriminalized for personal use are:
- opium -- 2 grams
- cocaine -- ½ gram
- heroin -- 1/10 gram
- marijuana -- 5 grams
- LSD -- 150 micrograms
- methamphetamine -- 1/5 gram
- ecstasy -- 1/5 gram
The measure comes in the midst of ongoing high levels of violence as President Calderón attempts to crack down on Mexico's wealthy, powerful, and bloody-minded drug trafficking organizations -- the so-called cartels. Approximately 10,000 people have died in prohibition-related violence in Mexico since Calderón called out the armed forces against the cartels in early 2007. The multi-sided confrontation pits the Mexican state against the cartels, the cartels against each other, and even factions of the same cartel against each other.
The measure also comes against a backdrop of increasing drug use levels in Mexico and increasing concern about the problems associated with that drug use. In recent years, the cartels have figured out that their home country is also an increasingly lucrative market for their wares. Now, if you travel to the right neighborhoods in virtually any Mexican city, you can find storefront retail illegal drug outlets.
"This looks like one step forward, two steps back," said Isaac Campos Costero, an assistant professor of history at the University of Cincinnati and visiting fellow at the University of California at San Diego's Center for US-Mexican Studies. "If we're talking about reducing the crisis of violence in Mexico, I don't think this bill does anything good, and may even exacerbate it. It won't reduce demand, and at the same time it seeks to prosecute small-time dealers more energetically."
"That this suggests growing support for decriminalization, reduces the criminality of drug users, embraces harm reduction, and acknowledges cultural uses is a good thing and consistent with what is going on elsewhere in Latin America," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "The idea of decriminalization of possession based in part on human rights and public health grounds has gained real traction in the region, which is somewhat surprising given the long preoccupation with drugs and organized crime," he said.
"But there's this other part of it that is all about Calderón's war on the traffickers; it's part and parcel of empowering law enforcement," Nadelmann continued. "There is serious concern that law enforcement has lost the upper hand to the gangsters, and the risk here is that the new law will give police all the more opportunity to go after low-level distributors and addicts who sell drugs to support their habits, while diverting attention from serious violent criminals."
For Mexican drug reformers organized as the Collective for Integrated Drug Policy, while the bill is an advance, its failure to more fully incorporate public health and human rights perspectives runs the risk of creating negative consequences for the country. In a statement released after the bill passed the Congress, the group praised the legislation for distinguishing between consumers, addicts, and criminals, for increasing the amount of marijuana from two grams to five, for acknowledging the role of harm reduction, and for removing the provision that would have required drug treatment for those caught holding.
But the group also expressed its preoccupation with other parts of the bill. "The law only marginally considers the problem of drug consumption and limits itself to legally defining it," the collective noted. "On the other hand, it focuses on intensifying a military and police strategy that has proven to be a failure."
The collective also worried that "the law will criminalize a vast group of people who make a living off small-time drug dealing" who are not cartel members but impoverished citizens. "Imprisoning them will not diminish the supply of drugs on the street, nor will it improve public security; yet it will justify the war on drugs, since the government will be able to boast the number of people incarcerated with this policy," the group wrote.
The decriminalization quantities are too small, the group said, and that will lead to problems. "These amounts are not realistic in terms of the drug market (for example, the initiative allows a consumer to have a half-gram of coke, when coke is sold on the streets by the gram), and we thus can anticipate a significant increase in corruption and extortion of consumers by police forces," the statement said.
Jorge Hernández Tinajero, an advisor to Social Democratic Party Deputy Elsa Conde, is also the leader of the collective. "Elsa went to the session and loudly criticized the bill, saying it was not an integrated policy but a new way to make more corruption and put more people in jail, especially women who desperately need to work and earn some money," he recounted. "She said 70% of the women in jail are there because they are small dealers."
"While the bill doesn't go far enough, it at least decriminalizes possession for personal use, and treatment is no longer mandatory if you get caught carrying your personal dose," said Dr. Humberto Brocca, a member of the collective. "Now, you will not have to show that you are an addict and thus a candidate for treatment," he said, referring to current Mexican law, which creates a loophole for addicts in possession of drugs.
"It's a mixed bag," said Ana Paula Hernández, a Mexico City-based consultant on drug policy and human rights. "The headlines will be that drug possession has been decriminalized, but when you look at it more closely, the consequences could be very serious," she said. "Now, state and local authorities will be able to prosecute crimes related to small-scale drug dealing. That would be good if Mexico were a different country, but corruption is so extreme at those levels that giving these authorities these powers could greatly increase their level of involvement in organized crime."
Whether the bill will have any impact at all on the major trafficking organizations who are ostensibly the target of the Mexican government's offensive remains to be seen.
"I don't think this is going to have any impact on the government's war against the cartels," said Hernandez. "For that to happen, we need to have a structural, democratic reform of police forces and the judiciary at the state and municipal level by reallocating resources for prevention and information campaigns on drug use with a risk and harm reduction perspective; and of course by other measures such as real decriminalization."
Brocca, too, foresaw more arrests as a result of the bill, but little impact on the violence plaguing the country. "Yeah, they will sweep up mostly small-timers so the party in power can look good," he said, "but it will probably have no impact whatsoever on the prohibition-related violence."
Whatever action Mexico takes is likely to have little impact on the violence without changes in US drug policies, Campos Costero said. Still, passage of the bill could have an important psychological effect, he said.
"From a symbolic point of view, once this goes into effect and Armageddon doesn't happen and society doesn't crumble, this may help break down attitudes a bit and pave the way for more substantive reforms in the future," said Campos Costero.
The bill could also undercut Mexico's historic opposition to relaxation of the drug laws north of the border. "Mexico has opposed US reform efforts on marijuana in the past, but by passing this bill, Mexico effectively reduces its ability to complain about US drug reform in the future," said Campos Costero. "And that's significant."
But that doesn't mean Mexicans would not raise a stink if the US moved toward radical drug reforms, Campos Costero noted. "For years and years, Mexicans have been hearing condescending remarks from the US about how they're not tough enough on drugs, so if the US were to pursue legalization, the Mexican public would go crazy. They see it as a demand problem, but of course, it's really a policy problem," he said. "If there were more rational drug policies, we could have demand at the same levels, but eliminate these problems."