Both Houses in Mexico's legislature have now approved a bill decriminalising possession of small amounts of all drugs for personal use. Both the Senate and Congress have supported the bill, meaning that President Calderon, just needs to rubber stamp the policy before it becomes law, expected to happen in the next few days (see Reuters report:'Mexico passes bill on small-scale drugs possession'). The legislation nominally applies to possession of under 2 grams of cannabis, 500 milligrams of cocaine half a gram), 40 milligrams of meth, and 50 milligrams of heroin (approx one dose) - although how strictly these limits will be enforced remains to be seen.
The legislation will operate in a somewhat similar fashion to the Portugese approach with arrested individuals having to agree to a drug treatment program to address admitted addiction or enter a prevention program designed for recreational users. Those who refuse to attend one of these kinds of programs would be subject to a fine. A number of countries around the world have decriminalised possession of drugs, most prominently Portugal, where, according to the recent Cato Institute report
'...drug-related pathologies—such as sexually transmitted diseases and deaths due to drug usage—have decreased dramatically. Drug policy experts attribute those positive trends to the enhanced ability of the Portuguese government to offer treatment programs to its citizens—enhancements made possible, for numerous reasons, by decriminalization.'(see also Drugs in Portugal: did decriminlisation work? in Time Magazine last month)
Similar policies have already been implemented or mooted in much of Latin America (most recently in Argentina), with the recent Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy calling for a:
A new paradigm to address the drug problem [that] must be less centered on repressive measures and more regardful of national societies and cultures. Effective policies must be based on scientific knowledge and not on ideological biases. This effort must involve not only governments but all sectors of society….’
Interestingly the bill is almost identical to one proposed by former President Vincent Fox in 2006, who was then persuaded to make a u-turn after heavy pressure from the United States. It is not expected the US will object this time around - Barack Obama visited Mexico last month and has presumably been aware of the recent developments, chosing not to comment so far (on the personal use/possession issue) but specifically praising Mexico's anti-drug efforts, and promising logistical and military support.
Obama's position, and the similar comments made by Hilary Clinton highlight the problem with the Mexico move. Whilst moves toward a less punitive system for drug users is welcomed, it will do nothing to stem the violence in Mexico that has caused 2,000 deaths this year alone, which is due entirely to the overarching legal framework of global prohibition and the country's key position as transit route for illicit drugs to the US - the world biggest illicit drug consumer.
Decriminalisation of personal use will not reduce the negative impacts of the illicit drugs trade (and some have argued it could make things worse on the illicit production/supply front). Marginalised populations in producer countries will still be threatened by military eradication and control efforts, and, along with transit countries, will still be victims of the entrenched corruption, violence, and conflict that comes with the vast illicit trade controlled by violent criminal profiteers.
A Mexican organisation, the Collective for an Integrated Drug Policy argues that, 'The law against small time trafficking (narcomenudeo) represents certain advances but also important risks for drug policy in Mexico.'
They have highlighted what they see as the risks and negative consequences that will also occur as a result of the implemenation of the law:
'1. The law only marginally considers the problem of drug consumption and limits itself to legally defining it. On the other hand, it focuses on intensifying a military and police strategy that has proven to be a failure. With this, we confirm the lack of interest by the federal government for public health and human rights.
2. The law will criminalize a vast group of people who make a living off the small time dealing of drugs, but who in reality do not consciously form part of organized crime, but rather whose principal reason for dealing is that it is way out of unemployment. 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.
3. The law implicates a policy that induces the commission of crimes on behalf of police forces by allowing them to buy drugs in order to identify small time dealers. This is clearly an authoritarian way to deal with the problem, where the message appears to be “when it comes to drugs, everything is allowed, including human rights violations”.
4. The amounts of drugs permitted in the initiative for personal consumption are ambiguous in terms of their actual legality, being that it is not specified how a consumer can obtain them without being considered a criminal due to the mere transaction. But most importantly, these amounts are not realistic in terms of the drug market (for example, the initiative allows a consumer to have .5 grams of coke, when coke is sold on the streets by the gram), the reason for which we can anticipate a significant increase in corruption and extortion of consumers by police forces.'
Only the ending of the global prohibition and its replacement with a just and humane system of legal regulation will enable Mexico to return to relative peace and stability.