President Calderon has carefully cultivated his tough-on-crime image since deploying the military to fight the Drug War just days after taking office. While the military strategy sparked some of the worst bloodshed Mexico has seen in decades, the administration insists the violence means cartel infrastructure is crumbling.
So, it came as a surprise to some when Calderon himself proposed a measure to decriminalize the possession of small quantities of illegal drugs. At the height of the Swine Flu scare in late April, Mexico’s Congress passed a bill that would allow users to carry up to 5 grams of marijuana, half a gram of cocaine, 2 grams of opium, and smaller doses of heroin or methamphetamines.
“When you’re decriminalizing possession like this, it has essentially no international consequences,” says Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a US-based organization that promotes alternatives to the Drug War. “This is not about the production, sale, distribution – it’s none of that sort of stuff. So, there’s no reason to think that this is going to make marijuana much more available in Mexico or lower its price coming across the border. It’s really about changing a small element of the legal relationship between the cop and somebody who’s picked up with marijuana or maybe some other drug in a small amount.”
The bill creates three different legal categories for drug offenders; users, addicts, and small time dealers. What separates a user from an addict will be up to a police investigator, but what sets a dealer apart from the rest is quantity; anything over the tolerated limit. Dealing offenses also carry mandatory minimum sentences harsher than those under current law.
Tolerated Limits and Market Reality
Jorge Hernandez Tinajero is the head of CUPIHD, a Mexican NGO that advocates for drug policy reform. He insists the quantities listed for simple possession have no relation to the reality of the market. “For example, in the case of marijuana, no one who is going to buy it is going to purchase only 5 grams,” says Hernandez Tinajero. “In the case of cocaine, the bill allows for the possession of a maximum of half a gram, whereas in the market, cocaine is sold by the gram. So, the act of buying or possessing a gram of cocaine – the unit by which it’s sold – automatically makes someone a “small scale dealer” and carries a 4 year sentence. The notion that this is a law to decriminalize is false.”
Little Impact on Ground Zero of the Drug War
Others say the proposed law will have a greater impact on a political level than on everyday life. Isaac Gonzalez works with at-risk youth in Ciudad Juarez. He cites poverty, inadequate educational infrastructure, and the overall lack of opportunities as the forces that drive young people towards using and dealing drugs. To drive the point home, Gonzalez points out that organized crime “according to some youth we’ve been able to rescue, pays fifteen hundred pesos a week to guard a pusher’s corner or to be involved in some way”. That’s 2-3 times what a maquiladora worker makes in the troubled border city.
“Why do we think about adding more police when perhaps what we need is rehabilitation or harm reduction…or prevention?” he asks. “But not prevention by burning drugs because that’s not directly related with consumption. We need to change this dynamic. The only things the people here see are shootings and death and all it creates is a society of fear…and not a society that thinks and can be critical of its everyday reality.”
Enter the Private Prison Industry
The end result of the so-called decriminalization law, with its mandatory minimum sentences, could be a prison population that the current system can’t house.
The Calderon administration seems to have already taken this into account. Mexico’s Public Security Ministry announced last month that it will increase bed space by more than 40 thousand by working, for the first time, with private investment to construct 12 new prisons.