Roughly 60 percent of Mexico's federal prison population is serving time for drug crimes.
No country has felt the brunt of the U.S. war on drugs quite like Mexico. Since 2006, when then-President George W. Bush and then-Mexican President Felipe Calderón partnered to take on Mexico's cartels, more than 60,000 people have been violently killed in the southern neighbor of the world's largest consumer of illegal drugs. Gruesome, often indiscriminate gang violence has been accompanied by a human rights crisis, as Mexico's security forces have bent and broken the law, sometimes in pursuit of peace, sometimes at the behest of the cartels they're supposedly fighting.
As the death toll rose, Mexican leaders railed against what appears to be a double standard: U.S. drug consumers keep Mexican cartels in business, yet Americans don't experience anywhere near the same level of violence—from gangs or their own government. (Yes, the U.S. sees lots and lots of SWAT raids on nonviolent drug law violators, but those raids don't come close to comparing to the torture and disappearances facilitated by Mexican military and law enforcement.)
After Colorado and Washington legalized recreational marijuana in November 2012, opponents of the drug war in Latin and South America agreed it was time to change the drug war, not just in the U.S., but in their own countries. A joint statement from the presidents of Mexico, Belize, Honduras, and Costa Rica "strongly implied" that the liberalization of American marijuana laws would make it difficult for them enforce marijuana bans in their own countries.
Reformers in Mexico took a big step last Thursday toward ending the disparity: lawmakers in Mexico's national legislature and Mexico City's Legislative Assembly introduced twin bills to overhaul the country's drug possession and marijuana laws.
The federal bill would allow doctors to prescribe marijuana for medical purposes. As in the U.S., marijuana in Mexico is currently in a schedule (read: category) of drugs that are considered harmful, addictive, and have no therapeutic value, and are thus not prescribable (fun fact: American doctors even in states with medical marijuana laws are allowed only to "recommend" marijuana, not prescribe it). If passed, Mexico's federal bill would reschedule marijuana as a drug with proven therapeutic value but known risks. The same bill would also allow Mexican states to determine their own marijuana laws, including the creation of tax-and-regulate systems like the ones adopted by voters in Colorado and Washington. The legislation is unique to Mexico, but the mission—establish and protect marijuana's medical value while simultaneously decentralizing the laws for recreational use—is similar to that of marijuana advocates in the U.S.
Mexico City's legislation, meanwhile, would fully decriminalize possession of less than five grams of marijuana (in the U.S., most decriminalization laws draw the line at one ounce). "Additionally," says the Drug Policy Alliance, "the bill establishes threshold quantities for cocaine, heroin and other illicit substances, under which people who use drugs can be referred to a 'Dissuasion Committee'—based on principles of collaboration and human rights – that offers information and support to minimize the risks and harms of drug use." The Mexico City legislation also provides for the creation of recreational marijuana dispensaries "aimed at removing people who use marijuana from the violence of the illicit market." Much like the forthcoming dispensaries in Colorado and Washington state, the dispensaries in Mexico City wouldn't be allowed to sell other substances like alcohol and tobacco, and they couldn't be located near schools or sell to minors.
For those who remember that Mexico decriminalized drug possession in 2009, the Mexico City bill might evoke some déjà vu. Hasn't marijuana already been decriminalized there? Yes and no. The 2009 reforms had two major impacts: The first is that it empowered states and municipalities to enforce drug laws; prior to 2012, when the 2009 bill was enacted in its entirety, enforcing drug laws in Mexico was exclusively a federal matter. The other change the 2009 reforms initiated was the establishment of a threshold to distinguish possession for consumption from small-scale dealing. That line was drawn at "two or three joints"; anything above that was still considered small-scale dealing and punishable by a multi-year sentence. What the law failed to do is provide for legally protected places for the purchase of marijuana (or any other drug).
Roughly 60 percent of Mexico's federal prison population is serving time for drug crimes, according to Alejandro Madrazo Lajous, a law professor at Mexico City's CIDE Law School who worked as a private consultant to help draft the two bills introduced last week. And out of that group, an estimated 38 percent were convicted of possession without intent to sell. "That is, most of them are most likely consumers, not dealers," says Lajous. "Over half of them are for marijuana only."
In light of the personal possession limits established by the 2009 bill, Mexico City's legislation is not actually much of a leap, but its creation of legal points of sale could lead to a challenge from the federal government. But in a country ravaged by black market violence that the U.S. has never really seen, it also makes sense for recreational users to have a place to buy without fear of being gunned down, decapitated, or extorted by law enforcement.
So what are the odds these bills will pass? The Los Angeles Times reports that an El Universal poll of Mexico City's 66 legislators "found that only 11 openly expressed support for the bill. Thirty were against it, and the rest were either undecided or declined to state their preference."
Lajous is more optimistic. He sees a recent letter in support of the legislation written by four former Latin American presidents as a key signal. "The whole thing is whether Mexico City's mayor, Miguel Ángel Mancera, will throw his political weight behind it," Lajous writes in an email. "That is what will decide things."
As the city's attorney general, Mancera backed Mayor Marcelo Ebrard's pushes for gay marriage and access to abortion*. Mancera was elected mayor in 2012 and continues to support progressive policies. He reportedly supports the marijuana bill introduced last week. Whether he can guarantee its passage is another story.
Top image: A man lights up a joint during a rally to hand out information and collect signatures for marijuana legalization outside the Senate building in Mexico City January 22, 2014. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo