Mexico's legalisation solution
Could an end to the prohibition of drugs help win the battle against the cartels?
Last Modified: 03 Apr 2009 15:06 GMT

Could Mexico benefit from the legalisation of some drugs? [EPA]

As Mexico suffers from the worst drug-related bloodshed in its history, a growing number of politicians and pundits are calling for the government to take a radical turn in its war on drugs: Legalisation.

In recent months, two left-leaning parties have filed bills in the Mexican congress on the issue - one advocating the decriminalisation of marijuana for personal use and the other of both "soft" and "hard" drugs, including cocaine and heroin.

The proposals come amid a rising tide of opinion to rethink drug prohibition across Latin America, where drug violence has affected different countries in fits and bursts for three decades. 

Elsa Conde, the federal congresswoman who filed the marijuana bill in Mexico, told Al Jazeera the measure could be a realistic first step toward a wider international policy on the drug trade.

"We need to look at new ways of stopping all these billions of dollars going to the gangsters," she said.

Growing local market

Mexican drug gangs make an estimated $30bn trafficking drugs to the US.

However, there is also a growing local market in narcotics, particularly in marijuana, cocaine and crack.

In depth
Her initiative advocates that people be allowed up to 3.5 grams of marijuana or to grow up to three plants in their homes.

Under current Mexican law, possession is not a specific crime but a judge can hand out a prison term for possession of any amount of drugs on the pretext they are dealing.

While Conde is not overly optimistic her bill will be approved in the short term, she at least hopes it will help fuel debate on the issue on both sides of the border.

"The first step is to decriminalise the debate," she said. "Then we may be able to change the policy bit by bit."

Latin initiative

In February, former presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico signed a statement calling for decriminalisation so that addicts would turn from "buyers in the illegal market to patients cared for in the public health system".

"It is imperative to rectify the war on drugs strategy pursued in the region over the past 30 years," it said.

Mexico is struggling to cope with an
unprecedented wave of drug violence [EPA]
"Current drug repression policies are firmly rooted in prejudices, fears and ideological visions."

The statement was particularly pertinent as it was backed by Cesar Gaviria, the former Colombian president, who oversaw the police killing of the one of the most notorious druglords of all time, Pablo Escobar.

The three elder statesmen stressed that the widespread violence in Mexico, which has seen 7,000 drug related killings since January 2008, was a sign that urgent new action is needed.

Legalisation advocates in Mexico and South America point their fingers at the US for leading drug prohibition and bullying other countries into toeing their line.

Nixon's legacy

The phrase "war on drugs" was first coined by Richard Nixon, the then US president, in 1969.

It has defined a policy in which the US has poured money into Latin American governments waging violent crackdowns on traffickers, such as in Colombia,  and cut off funds for others.

The US angered many Latin American countries with its certification programme, enacted by in 1986, which imposed sanctions on those states not considered to be fully co-operating with US anti-narcotics efforts.

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Reforms under the administration of George Bush, the former US president, softened the process so that the government would only go after the "worst offending" countries.

But the Bush administration also attacked Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, for his policy of encouraging the growing of coca leaves.

In November, Morales – who once chewed coca leaves at a UN conference – expelled the US drug enforcement agency office from Bolivia.

In 2006, Mexico's Congress approved a previous bill that would have decriminalised small quantities of marijuana, cocaine and other drugs.

But under pressure from the White House, Vicente Fox, the former Mexican president, refused to sign that bill into law.

"We need to create a policy that is more autonomous from the United States," said Conde.

"After all, it is here in Latin America that we are suffering from all the killing and intimidation of the drug war."

However, Conde conceded that change is also needed in consumer countries like the US if they are to cut off the drug cartels' main source of income.

Cross-border opposition

In January, the city council of El Paso, Texas - across the Mexican border from the violence-wracked Ciudad Juarez - passed a resolution calling for the US congress to engage in an "open, honest, national dialogue on ending the prohibition of narcotics".

The El Paso mayor promptly killed the motion with a veto.

Many Mexican politicians remain opposed to
legalisation [AP] 
And mayors of several US cities near the border said they would be concerned about Americans crossing the Rio Grande to take drugs if they were legal in Mexico.

Likewise, many Mexican politicians stand firmly against the new proposals.

"In times when we have an economic crisis and all this violence, it is a foolish distraction to talk about things like legalising drugs," said Alejandro Munoz, a congressman from the conservative National Action Party.

Felipe Calderon, the Mexican president who is leading a national crackdown against the cartels, has filed his own bill that would make drug addicts go to compulsory rehabilitation after the first offence and face prison terms for their second.

"You see a kid that is taking drugs, and the next thing he is stealing car-wing mirrors and then he has joined a gang and 20 years later he is a cartel hitman," Calderon told Mexico's Channel 11 on Sunday.

Street view

On the streets of the Mexican capital, the public is very mixed on the issue.

Carlos Barrera, a 35-year-old systems analyst, said legalising drugs would be a change for the better.

"We need to be realistic. The war against narcotics has not yielded results and it won't," he said.

"If we want to reduce insecurity then legalise drugs and that gets rid of the mafia's biggest business. I wish the politicians would pass laws that help normal people not organised crime."

However, Heriberto Bravo, a building-site supervisor, said any move towards legalisation would create more drug use.

"We could have drug addicts on every corner," he said."That will just create more crime and killing. We should never give in to drugs. They are like a cancer."

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