By Phillip Smith
Late last week, lawmakers in Mexico City filed two bills that would begin to radically transform the country's approach to drugs. One was introduced in the Mexico City legislative assembly and one in the federal legislature.
The moves come as the debate over drug policy in general and marijuana in particular heats up in the region. The legalization of marijuana in Uruguay and the US states of Colorado and Washington has enlivened ongoing efforts at drug reform in Mexico, and the country continues to bleed from the violence associated with criminal organizations that rose to power on the back of drug prohibition.
They also come just days after four former Latin American presidents -- Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, Ricardo Lago of Chile, Fernando Enrique Cardoso of Brazil, and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia -- penned an open letter in support to Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera, himself a proponent of legalization.
"This is a necessary debate to have for Mexico City, Mexico and the entire region," the four ex-presidents said. "Something needs to change as 40 years of immense efforts and funds have failed to reduce both the production and consumption of illicit drugs."
"We believe we're making a very important contribution to a global debate that has to do with rethinking the issue of drugs," Vidal Llerenas, a member of the Mexico City Legislative Assembly and sponsor of the local legislation, said at Thursday news conference announcing the bills.
"The aim of this legislation is not to change the drug sphere in the city, but rather to simply avoid criminalizing those who consume marijuana," said Deputy Eduardo Santillan Perez, another sponsor of the bill.
The Mexico City bill would de-emphasize small-time marijuana prosecutions. It would instruct police and judges to deprioritize prosecution of marijuana violations in some circumstances, and it would create a Portugal-style "dissuasion commission" which could impose administrative sanctions on offenders instead of subjecting them to the criminal process.
The bill would also allow for the limited retail sales of marijuana in the Federal District. Such sales could only take place under certain criteria, including posting warnings to consumers about potential health risks. Retailers would not be allowed to sell to minors or be located near schools, and they would not be allowed to sell adulterated marijuana. Retailers who complied with these criteria would be issued permits to sell marijuana by the district government's Institute for the Attention and Prevention of Addictions.
The federal bill would raise possession limits for the amount of drugs decriminalized under a 2009 law. Under that law, the possession of up to five grams of pot was decriminalized; the new bill would increase that to 30 grams (slightly more than an ounce). It would similar increase the decriminalized possession limits for drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine.
The federal bill would also allow for the use of medical marijuana. And it would devolve some decision making power on drug policy issues from the federal government to states and cities.
There are clear medicinal benefits to using marijuana, said PRD Deputy Fernando Belaunzaran Mendez, and denying these benefits "is like when the clergy denied Galileo's claim that the Earth moves."
The prospects of passage are much better for the Mexico City bill than the federal bill, because the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), whose members introduced both the local and the federal bills, dominates the Mexico City assembly, but not the federal one. Mexico City, which has moved to allow abortion, divorce, and same-sex marriage, is also more socially liberal than the country as a whole. The Mexico City bill is likely to be debated early next month.
Both bills had their genesis in discussions that began last summer, when the Mexico City legislature organized public hearings to explore alternative solutions to the city's drug problems. Civil society groups, including México Unido Contra la Delincuencia (MUCD), the Colectivo por Una Politica Integral Hacia las Drogas (CUPIHD), and Britain'sTransform Drug Policy Foundation were deeply involved in the drafting process, along with lawyers, medical professionals, security professionals and drug policy experts.
"Of the four specialists that helped draft the bill, two were from CUPIHD," said Alejandro Madrazo Larous, a constitutional law expert, law professor and CUPIHD member who helped draft the bill.
He told the Chronicle that international reform currents were indeed percolating in Mexico.
"As other countries move forward with reforms, it just seems more and more absurd that we are killing each other in Mexico to ban something that is becoming a regulated business," he said.
"We welcome this attempt to replace stringent cannabis law enforcement with humane, just and effective alternatives," said MUCD's Lisa Sanchez. "Decades of punitive responses have failed to reduce levels of use and have effectively left the market in the hands of criminal entrepreneurs whose watchwords are violence and greed. This is a great opportunity for the government to adopt a new approach to drugs and improve the health and safety of its citizens. Let's not waste it."
"On the heels of historic marijuana legalization victories in Washington, Colorado and Uruguay, it's promising to see other countries and jurisdictions following suit. The innovative nature of the marijuana bill -- which combines elements of marijuana regulation models from around the world -- demonstrates that reforms can be tailored to fit the local context," said Hannah Hetzer, policy manager for the Americas at the Drug Policy Alliance.
"Mexico has suffered immensely from the war on drugs," Hetzer continued. "Amidst extreme levels of violence and crime, it is encouraging to see Mexico's capital city attempt to refocus its efforts away from marijuana possession and low-level drug offenses and to invest in reducing violent crime instead."
Madrazo Larous said passage of the bills would smartly reprioritize law enforcement, but that it would take work.
"I think they have a chance," he said. "We are reaching out for more support. If we can pass this at the national level, it would free up resources at the local level which would allow for better criminal investigation and prosecution of violent crimes. Today, we waste too many resources running after consumers and petty dealers."
With marijuana legalization also on both the legislative and the popular agenda in Washington, DC, it appears that Mexico City and Washington are in a race to see which North American capital city becomes the first to allow legal marijuana sales. Sorry, Ottawa.