Two bills would decriminalize marijuana possession in Mexico City and give states more control over drug policy

Al Jazeera
February 14, 2014

Wild marijuana plant growing near Islamabad. / Image: Wikimedia Commons
Wild marijuana plant growing near Islamabad. / Image: Wikimedia Commons
North America’s largest city on Thursday is looking to join the trend of drug reforms sweeping through the region, with Mexico City lawmakers introducing a measure that would decriminalize — not legalize — the possession of marijuana for personal use. It would also remove incarceration as the first response for the possession of other illegal drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines.

In addition to the Mexico City measure, lawmakers from the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) introduced a bill in the federal House of Representatives that would allow prescriptions for medical marijuana at the national level. The measure would also permit states to regulate the drug’s production, distribution and sale.

The proposals represent a coordinated effort to deviate from punitive drug policies in Mexico, which has suffered unprecedented levels of drug-related violence during the United States–led war on drugs. Roughly 70,000 people have been killed in Mexico in drug-related violence since 2007, when then-President Felipe Calderon launched a military offensive against drug syndicates.

“These bills are exciting because they further the hemispheric trend of changing marijuana laws,” said Hannah Hetzer, policy manager of the Americas at the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes alternatives to global drug policy. “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.”

Under the Mexico City bill, residents caught with less than 5 grams of marijuana would not be charged with any administrative offense or fine. Possession of 5 grams to 5 kilos would require that offenders face a “dissuasion committee,” which would offer information on health treatment, but offenders would avoid jail time. Criminal sanctions would be applied to anyone found with more than 5 kilos of the drug.

In 2009, Mexico decriminalized the possession of up to 5 grams of cannabis, but people caught with that amount can still be detained by police. The same law also decriminalized up to 500 milligrams of cocaine and small amounts of heroin and methamphetamines.

Renato Sales, Mexico’s deputy attorney general, recently gave the measure a boost when he encouraged the country to debate the decriminalization measure seriously, without prejudices, after Colorado and Washington state began legal sales of marijuana for recreational use this year.

“The truth is that Mexico has paid a very high price for combating drug traffickers and prohibiting the cultivation of marijuana on its territory, when several cities in the United States have already legalized it,” Sales told local media.

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has said he is willing to debate alternatives to current drug policy, but he remains opposed to marijuana legalization.

But earlier in the week, the Mexico City measure received boosts from four former presidents in Latin America, a region at the vanguard of global drug policy reform after Uruguay in December became the first nation in the world to legalize recreational marijuana.

Former leaders Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, Ricardo Lagos of Chile, Henrique Cardoso of Brazil and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia called for a change in tactics in the war on drugs, including the decriminalization of marijuana for personal use.

“Forty years of immense efforts have not reduced the production or consumption of illicit drugs,” the ex-presidents said in a statement. “In Mexico and Central America, violence and corruption associated with drug trafficking represent a threat to the security and democratic stability.”

That menace was the motivation behind the second bill introduced on Thursday, which was drafted after six months of consultation with security advisers, health practitioners and drug policy experts. The proposal would reform federal laws to increase the limit of personal marijuana possession from 5 grams to 30 grams.

Besides legalizing medical marijuana prescriptions, the national measure would grant states the power to make their own drug policy decisions. But medical marijuana users would still be required to obtain their marijuana from the black market; neither bill would allow the government to cultivate the drug for medical or recreational use.

“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,” Lisa Sanchez, Latin America program director for Transform Drug Policy Foundation, said in a release. “This is a great opportunity for the government to adopt a new approach to drugs and improve the health and safety of its citizens.”

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