Skip to main content

Feature: Mexico Decriminalization Bill Passes -- One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #584)
Consequences of Prohibition

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.

discussion growing: Feb. '09 drug policy forum held by Mexico's Grupo Parlamentario Alternativa (
The US backs Calderón's war on the cartels, allocating $1.4 billion over three years for Plan Mérida. President Obama reiterated his commitment to the Mexican drug war during a visit to the country last month.

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."

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

The only thing that will help Mexico is if we legalize drugs and put their cartels out of business. Even us just legalizing marijuana would be a big help for them because their cartels make most of their money on marijuana they sell here. Talking about a government report where they estimated that cartels make about 62% of their income from marijuana sales in the US, John Walters said marijuana is their "bread and butter," the "center of gravity" for Mexican cartels. You can't believe much of what he says, but he was right about that. They make most of their money from marijuana sales and their vast distribution networks for marijuana make perfect conduits through which they can move their other far more dangerous drugs.

Fri, 05/08/2009 - 2:50pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Makes me wonder why unscrupulous Huey Long-like demagogues and dictators like walters survive as long as they do?

Guess that's what happens when your are appointed, not elected, to a unconstitutional czarship that is not accountable to congress as the law requires... it's why they make czars... to avoid congressional oversite... ignorance may be bliss... but unaccountability is heavenly!

Walters is a christian fundamentalist, and public idiot, that preaches from his pulpit, despite the seperation clause, and has a sign proclaiming: Faith is the Answer!

OMG, christian faith and compassion to the rescue again... can the world really afford the compassion of unevolved baffoons like walters much longer?

There ends never justify their means!

Fri, 05/08/2009 - 10:03pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Wait for the serial killers to sign a piece of paper. Maybe when the terrorists sign something with a pen they will behave rationally. How fucking stupid to recognize the right to exist of any of these terrorists everywhere on earth that force these double standards on everyone. They never made herbs or petrochemical drugs for that matter illegal legally. Its a scam and hoping that someday these elite criminally insane sociopathic tyrants will think rationally does not help. They have to be unrecognized as having any right to have power over other people like with any other serial murderer.

Fri, 05/08/2009 - 4:28pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I've been looking for a copy of the bill, De Ley de Narcomanudeo, and it's no where to be found. Does anyone have a link to the actual wording of the bill? How do we know it's no good if we can't read it?

Also, once signed, when will it go into effect? How will the local LEOs be notified? Lots of questions but no answers.

Fri, 05/08/2009 - 8:12pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

This country tried prohibition by enacting the 18th Amendment. During prohibition crime skyrocketed beyond belief. After a bloody thirteen years, the Great Experiment failed miserably leading to repeal through the 21st Amendment to the Constitution. It back-fired on what I'm certain were folks with good intentions.

Mexico is a sovereign state. Let them try their approach to this problem. Who knows, it might work and reduce the terrible bloody mess that has been going on for some time. A lot of money and manpower has been dumped into this and has produced little results. Even some law enforcement officials have admitted it. It might not produce the desired results but it won't be known until it's implemented. Let's face it; people wanted booze and they got it one way or another and the same applies to drugs. It's human nature. Let's pray it is successful and cut down on the bloodshed, profits and corruption.

Fri, 05/08/2009 - 8:47pm Permalink
Mark Sanchez (not verified)

There isn't a Middle-Class and Police corruption, historically, has been paramount. The American observers are correct when they analyze that the low level drug vendor will become the target of municipalities local police, who will utilize their advantage over the disadvantaged.
But it is a first step that requires adjustment down the line. Once the Mexican government realizes the magnitude of revenue that can be generated from legalized marijauna taxes. Mexico will allow a broader scope of legalization. Mexico will be able to take the large scale monetery profitability away from the drug cartels. However Mexico will have to develop their own product that is equal or above the cartels quality.Thus putting the cartels out of business in the Long-Run. Also creating a new Middle-Class that can enjoy the equity of a democracy.

Fri, 05/08/2009 - 8:50pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

kevin W , 1/5 of a gram of mexican pot is not going to do much for a medical user . If you buy 5 grams of the very best sensi , from Jose on 5th ave in playa del carmen ,maybe , if you hold it in long enough , you know the guy that speaks english and starts off with the silver and tee shirts and ends with the drug and hot girl pitch . Watch out he will try to over charge you , he also brings out the old seedy some what moldy mex first as sensi ! You will be lucky to get a fat joint out of 5 grams with all the seeds and stems ! If you hagle enough he has bubba , the big a little bit overweight guy , bring out better red haired sensi and overcharges you , and then will ask you for a tip , tell him get it from bubba hes got the money !

Sat, 05/09/2009 - 2:29am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

though previous comment on quality of Mexican weed also noted.
But a real step backwards for users engaged in small scale selling to afford their own use or poor people trying to put food on their table, and a vast new oportunity for corruption to flourish. Don't see how it will do a damn thing to reduce the power of the cartels, though maybe it will set the stage for more significant reform.

Sat, 05/09/2009 - 12:25pm Permalink
rita (not verified)

The amounts to be decriminalized are ridiculously small; if anything this law will only increase the profits of small-time dealers by encouraging users to make small purchases every day. Maybe it's a baby step toward thinking about steps in the right direction. "Not the end, or even the beginning of the end. Maybe the end of the beginning."

Sat, 05/09/2009 - 4:49pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

"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."

Who Cares!! This isnt mexico. I dont give one shit if mexicans get angry if the us decides on radicle drug reform. But thanks for helping pave the way. Hell, mexicans dont even want to live in their own country anyways. They are coming here in droves. Its common sense finally prevailing!! The vast majority of americans follow laws made to make other people rich and get them elected so they can then in turn make themselves and the people who got them elected richer at the cost of average americans..

Sun, 05/10/2009 - 7:08am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

"Walters is a christian fundamentalist,"


Where does the Bible support the criminal mercantilsim statutes?

What we have actually is faux Christianity, from anti-Christ Rome, all the way down, including the faux "Protestant" churches.

Wed, 05/13/2009 - 3:32pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

The police and politicians are the cartel and terrorists. Common sense is more effective than law.

Thu, 05/14/2009 - 7:25pm Permalink
John B (not verified)

Anyone have any recent updates about this? Will Calderon sign? Has he already? Would this mean that it is legal for US citizens to go to Mexico and use drugs? What about drug testing in the US? Could an employer fire an employee who tests positive but has recently travelled to Mexico?

Tue, 05/26/2009 - 4:57pm Permalink
sk1951 (not verified)

In reply to by John B (not verified)

Stupid point. You can get drunk but you can't get drunk at work... You can use drugs but you can't get caught or do them in your work place or where it endangers. The world needs to use some common sense...

Thu, 05/20/2010 - 1:23am Permalink
sk1951 (not verified)

Time to for us to stop the worry about other people places and things and do what is good and right for America...

Thu, 05/20/2010 - 1:20am Permalink

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.