Mexico could soon become the first North American country to fully legalize the possession of illegal drugs for personal consumption. A bill proposed by President Felipe Calderón and passed earlier this month by Mexico’s congress would make it legal to carry up to five grams of marijuana, a half-gram of cocaine, and small amounts of heroin and methamphetamine. It’s expected to be signed into law within days.
While efforts to loosen Mexico’s drug possession laws have proven controversial in the past, this latest attempt doesn’t represent a radical departure from Mexico’s current legislation. Mexican law currently allows for possession charges to be dropped if a person can prove they are an addict and the drugs found on them were for personal use. The new law simply drops the addiction requirement and sets out the maximum quantities permitted, effectively taking the arresting police officer’s judgment out of the equation.
According to Bruce Bagley, a professor of international studies at the University of Miami who’s written extensively about drug control policies, the reforms are largely aimed at freeing up precious law enforcement resources. “Mexico is trying to reduce the weight of non-violent criminals involved with drugs in its prison system,” Bagley says, “in order to make the prison system more effective, more efficient and better capable of containing the really violent criminals.”
Though Calderón’s bid to reform Mexico’s drug laws is a modest one, its implications could be far-reaching. The move comes as growing violence between Mexico’s drug cartels threatens to undermine the country’s fragile democratic underpinnings. Since Calderón announced a clampdown on drug traffickers in 2006, more than 7,000 people have been murdered across the country, with drug cartels waging a relentless campaign of terror against the security forces charged with putting them out of business.
“In theory, any state should be powerful enough to go after any criminal,” says Jorge Chabat, a security expert at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics in Mexico City. “The problem is that drug trafficking isn’t like any other crime. The traffickers have a lot of money and they are able to corrupt almost anybody.” The situation has become so dire that a recent report by the U.S. Joint Forces Command puts Mexico on the same level as Pakistan with respect to the likelihood that its political institutions could suffer “a rapid and sudden collapse.”
When Calderón’s predecessor, Vicente Fox, moved to adopt a nearly identical drug reform package in 2006, the U.S. pressured Mexico to abandon the idea, which it promptly did. This time, the U.S. has been emphatically silent. Given the grim state of Mexico’s situation, they may very well be wondering whether Calderón’s plan goes far enough.