The Senate approved a bill Friday decriminalizing possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use -- including heroin, cocaine, LSD and Ecstasy.
President Vicente Fox’s office indicated that he would sign the bill, which has already passed the lower house of Congress. Mexican officials say they hope the measure will allow police to focus on large-scale trafficking operations rather than minor drug busts.
The bill, passed in the early morning on a vote of 53 to 26, with one abstention, also stiffens penalties for trafficking and for possession of drugs, even small quantities, by government employees or near schools. It maintains criminal penalties for drug sales.
“This law gives police and prosecutors better legal tools to combat drug crimes that do so much damage to our youth and children,” Fox spokesman Ruben Aguilar said.
But the legislation came as a shock to Washington, which counts on Mexico’s support in the fight against smugglers who move large quantities of drugs through Mexico to U.S. users.
“I would say any law that decriminalizes dangerous drugs is not very helpful,” said Judith Bryan, spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.
A delegation from the House of Representatives visited Mexico last week and met with senior officials to discuss drug control issues but was told nothing of the upcoming legislation, said Michelle Gress, a House subcommittee counsel.
Oscar Aguilar, a Mexico City political analyst, said that Fox’s office had proposed the law and that his party supported it, and he had apparently been betting it would not draw much notice.
“That’s probably why they passed it the way they did, in the closing hours of the final session,” Aguilar said.
The bill says criminal charges will no longer be brought for possession of up to 25 milligrams of heroin, 5 grams of marijuana (about one-fifth of an ounce) or 0.5 gram of cocaine.
“No charges will be brought against ... addicts or consumers who are found in possession of any narcotic for personal use,” according to the Senate bill, which also lays out allowable quantities for other drugs, including amphetamines.
Mexicans would be allowed to possess more than 2 pounds of peyote, a hallucinogenic cactus.
Mexican officials declined to explain how the law would work, including whether drug use in public would be tolerated or whether it would be discouraged by other means.
The law was defended by Mexican legislators.
“We can’t close our eyes to this reality,” said Sen. Jorge Zermeno of Fox’s conservative National Action Party.
“We cannot continue to fill our jails with people who have addictions.”
But Ulisis Bon, a drug treatment expert in Tijuana, where heroin use is rampant, said the new legislation would increase addictions in Mexico.
“A lot of Americans already come here to buy medications they can’t get up there.... Just imagine with heroin,” he said.