Mexico's New Drug Law May Set an Example

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Seth Resnick / Science Faction / Corbis

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 clean.

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 approach."

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."