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Mexico Plans to Decriminalize All Illegal Drugs

By Alexander Beadle

Published: May 23, 2019   
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Mexico plans to introduce radical new drug law reform measures that would decriminalize all illegal drugs in the country, and it’s asking the United States to follow suit.

The measure was announced by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in his administration’s official “Plan Nacional de Desarrollo”, or National Development Plan, which lays out the policy aims of his government for the next five years. 

An emphasis on treatment

Under this new approach, drugs would not become legal, but the normal criminal penalties for drug possession would instead be replaced with referrals to medical detoxification and addiction treatment programs. 

“The only real possibility of reducing the levels of drug consumption is to lift the ban on those that are currently illegal,” reads the president’s policy statement, translated from its original Spanish, “and redirect the resources currently destined to combat their transfer and apply them in programs— massive, but personalized—of reinsertion and detoxification.”

The development plan is also highly critical of Mexico’s historical “war on drugs”. In 2006, only a week after taking office, then-President Felipe Calderón sent 6,500 Mexican soldiers into his home state to tackle a local surge in drug-related killings. This action is now viewed by many as the beginning of Mexico’s modern war on drugs. Calderón’s eventual successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, continued this hardline approach to drug issues. During Nieto’s time in office several major drug cartel leaders were arrested or killed, but this did not precipitate the fall in violent crime that officials were hoping for. 

The new proposal brands the war on drugs as “unsustainable” and explains that ending the current prohibitionist strategy is “the only real possibility” of addressing Mexico’s drug problem. It also accuses the war on drugs of escalating the public health problem posed by drug use into an urgent public safety crisis. 

Mexico made a similar move in 2009, when Calderón’s government introduced a law to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of only select drugs, including cannabis, cocaine, heroin, LSD, and methamphetamine. However, this policy achieved little in practice as the limits for personal use amounts were set too low to make a real difference. The law was subsequently dubbed “little more than quasi-decriminalization” in news reports about the changes. 

How does this affect Mexico’s cannabis law?

Even before this plan was announced, Mexico was already well on the road to cannabis legalization. Cannabis derivatives were legalized for medicinal use in Mexico in 2017, though the product types available under this legislation were restricted to exclusively low-THC medications. 

Additionally, public opinion in the country has generally warmed to cannabis legalization. A 2016 survey of a metropolitan area in Nuevo Leon found a significant majority of respondents in support of medical marijuana legalization, with nearly 80 percent agreeing that medical cannabis products are safe when used responsibly. The same survey found only 26 percent of respondents in favor of legalizing recreational cannabis, but 44.3 percent said they felt recreational cannabis is also safe when used responsibly. And as the survey authors point out, a previous study indicated only 10 percent support for recreational cannabis legalization just three years prior. 

More recently, a straw poll, conducted in March through the official Twitter account of the nation’s secretary for security and citizen protection, saw 81 percent of the nearly 87,000 responding users express support for legalizing recreational cannabis use.

Last year, Mexico’s Supreme Court declared the country’s existing cannabis prohibition legislation unconstitutional while issuing a pair of rulings on cases that affirmed the right of adults to use cannabis recreationally. The rulings meant that Mexico’s prohibition laws became essentially unenforceable in the courts.

Following this, a bill that would legalize and regulate the sales of recreational cannabis was introduced in congress. The bill was authored by the ex-Supreme Court Justice and now Secretary of Interior Olga Sánchez Cordero while she was still a senator in Mexico’s congress. The bill contains 75 individual articles which would give the Mexican government strict regulatory controls over the resultant cannabis industry and forms a key part of President Obrador’s plan to tackle the country’s drug problem using peaceful means. It is still currently making its way through the legislative process, and is one of a number of cannabis-related measures that the senate is considering advancing this summer.

Could the US follow Mexico’s lead?

As well as setting out the intentions of the new drug policy, the statement in President Obrador’s development plan also calls for cooperation between the US and Mexico when tackling drug issues. 

“[The drug problem] should be pursued in a negotiated manner, both in the bilateral relationship with the United States and in the multilateral sphere, within the [United Nations] UN,” states the plan.

The proposal has been well received among drug reform advocates. Steve Hawkins, the executive director of the Washington DC-based Marijuana Policy Project told Newsweek that he believes the development plan “reflects a shift in thinking on drug policy that is taking place around the world, including here in the US.”

“The war on drugs has been extremely costly, not just in terms of government resources, but also human lives, and it has failed to accomplish its objective,” he continued. “Prohibition policies have, by and large, caused more harm to people and communities than the drugs they were intended to eliminate, and they haven’t come anywhere close to eliminating the supply or the demand.”

This type of widespread drug decriminalization is not a totally new concept. Portugal decriminalized all drugs in 2001, also choosing to replace arrests with non-criminal proceedings, such as the issuance of warnings or small fines, or with referrals to doctors or social workers to provide support and addiction counseling. Since decriminalization, drug-related deaths in Portugal have fallen to three for every million citizens; the EU average is 17.3 per million. Coinciding with decriminalization, the country has also seen falls in the use of “legal highs,” drug-related crime, and HIV infection rates. 

Alexander Beadle

Science Writer

Alexander Beadle has been working as a freelance science writer since 2017 and has covered the cannabis industry for Analytical Cannabis since 2018. He has also written for our sister publication, Technology Networks, and the cannabis industry consultant firm Prohibition Partners, among others. Alexander holds a Master's in Materials Chemistry from the University of St. Andrews, where he won a Chemistry Purdie scholarship, and conducted research into zeolite crystal growth mechanisms and the action of single-molecule transistors.


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