Mexican Drug Decriminalization


by Joe Chivers

Decriminalization worked in Portugal, but would it work in Mexico? In recent months, the Mexican president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has been pushing for decriminalization of all drugs. Mexico has been torn apart by the drug war, and it would seem to be a fantastic solution to the problem. But would it work?

The 1940 Decriminalization

This isn’t the first time that drugs have been decriminalized in Mexico. On January 5, 1940, then President of Mexico, Lazaro Cardenas, signed the Federal Regulation of Drug Addiction, and it became law. This law mirrored much of the Portuguese decriminalization law, which came later in the 20th Century. Those with addiction problems could be prescribed drugs, the idea of addiction as an illness, rather than a moral failing, was promoted; and rehabilitation facilities, such as they were, were established.

The law was a success, at first. Drug possession was decriminalized, arrests fell dramatically. Just a few months in, around 1000 users were buying drugs from dispensaries, which controlled for dosage, massively limiting the risk of overdose. The criminal gangs were being undercut by low-cost dispensaries, and addicts were being allowed to recover and return to their jobs. One user, called Rompepechos, was reported as saying “we are thankful to the Health Department, very thankful.”

Then the law was overturned. The Second World War, according to the Mexican government, was making supplies of cocaine and morphine difficult to source. The old legislation was brought back, just six months after this revolutionary law had passed.

The story of the 1940 decriminalization is tragic, but the same conclusion is not forewritten. What would decriminalization look like in Mexico in 2019?

Mexican Decriminalization Plans

Lopez’s plans for decriminalization can be found here. The plan would be carried out over five years. While drugs wouldn’t be made legal, as in Portugal, a focus would be placed on helping users receive any necessary addiction treatment. The similarities to Portugal are also present in the social problems that need to be solved. Portugal was suffering from an unprecedented HIV epidemic at the time of its legalization, while in Mexico, rates of drug use are increasing, with the most worrying trend being a massive increase in heroin addiction rates in Ciudad Juarez.

Capital and resources currently being used to punish drug users would be spent on treatment and rehabilitation. The Mexican government hopes to achieve these aims with the cooperation of the US government. However, this does not seem likely. The White House’s press secretary, Sarah Sanders, has said that the United States government will not support legalization in Mexico or “anywhere.” While this was explicitly referring to legalization, rather than decriminalization, it is likely that this nuance will be lost on the current administration. Instead, the United States government seems set on a hard course of continuing the war on drugs. This is, of course, easy for a nation that doesn’t experience the brunt of the death and disorder that comes with it.

Marijuana was scheduled to be legalized completely by the end of October. However, lawmakers missed a deadline to pass the legislation, and its future looks a little unclear. If the Supreme Court allows an extension, it should still go ahead. However, that is not guaranteed.

Problems That Could Face Mexico’s Legalization Efforts

Lopez’s aim and the pot legalization proposed by the Mexican government are noble endeavors. However, they are faced by numerous significant problems. Portugal, despite suffering from social problems at the time of decriminalization, was not suffering from the same scale of issues as that caused by the drug war.

Interference From The U.S. Government

As the United States government has voiced its opposition to drug legalization in Mexico, it is unclear how it would react to decriminalization. The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs could give then UN and the U.S. a certain degree of legal backing when it comes to punishing Mexico for decriminalization. Sanctions could be enforced, and at the extreme end of the spectrum, military action could be taken.

The United States has a long history of regime change and intervention in Latin America, and Mexico would be no different. Regime change is at the extreme end of the spectrum, but the United States’ previous military and covert operations during the War on Drugs means that it cannot be discounted as a possibility.

Cartel Interference

The Mexican drug cartels would be the biggest losers in decriminalization. If drug use was decriminalized, those with addiction problems could be helped, which would cut into their profits. Similarly, if addiction was seen as an illness, rather than a criminal offence, fewer people would be drawn into a life of crime. Instead, they would be able to reenter society. This would cut down on cartel recruits. Finally, legalizing pot would cut into their profits directly.

As you might imagine, the cartels wouldn’t take kindly to this. In states with large cartels, they are not shy about using violence to prevent unfavorable legislative and political outcomes. One need only look at the assassinations of Rodrigo Lara and Luis Carlos Galan in Colombia, to see that.

Cartels need not necessarily turn to overt violence, however. Corruption has been a problem in the Mexican government, and if the cartels were able to leverage this, they could prevent the new legislation from within.

Government Inefficiency

As seen by their missing the deadline for marijuana legalization, the Mexican government has problems with efficiency. While it would likely not end decriminalization efforts entirely, a long and protracted decriminalization process could present problems. It would give outside influences more chance to interfere in the process and allow the drug war to be waged in full fervor for a longer period of time.

Final Thoughts

As it did with Portugal, decriminalization could be a huge help to Mexico. It would solve social issues presented by the cartels and drug war, while providing those with addiction issues a new pathway to recovery. Full legalization, which would cut into cartel profits directly, would be better, but will likely not be allowed by the United States. We’re excited to see where Lopez can take Mexican drug law.

Joe is a print and online journalist, based in Europe, who specializes in writing on war and social issues.