Mexico shifts tactics in the drug battle


Mired in a bloody battle with major drug traffickers, Mexico is quietly eliminating jail time for possession of small amounts of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and other drugs.

The government of President Felipe Calderon says removing the penalties will help in its fight against traffickers by freeing up law enforcement resources and shifting attention from minor consumers to big-time dealers and drug lords. The law also provides for free treatment for addicts.

But critics say decriminalization sends the wrong message amid a drug war that has claimed more than 11,000 lives since late 2006. It will encourage consumption and add to Mexico’s fast-growing ranks of addicts, opponents say.


With the law, Mexico joins a trend throughout Latin America of easing penalties for small-time drug use. But Mexico’s law goes further than most in that it includes substances such as heroin, LSD and methamphetamine.

The law, which went into effect last week, did not stir huge controversy in Mexico, and Washington has not taken a public stance on it. But officials in some states that border the U.S. are worried that they will be flooded with American “drug tourists” seeking a penalty-free high.

That was not the fear Saturday on Tijuana’s legendary Avenida Revolucion, the main tourist drag clogged with bars, restaurants and souvenir shops. Tourism has plummeted because of drug-fueled violence, the economic crisis and the recent flu epidemic, but no one was predicting that liberal drug laws would bring the tourists back.

“People who want drugs have always been able to just go down the street and buy them,” said Adan Cardenas, a waiter at the Mystery Bar, where it’s all-you-can-drink for $15.

The tourist police who patrol Tijuana said their marching orders remain the same: Anyone seen consuming drugs, whatever the amount, is taken to police headquarters.

“It’s not like you can shoot up on the street or smoke a joint on the corner. If they catch you, you’re still going to the police station,” said Jack Doron, president of a downtown merchants association. He said it’s still illegal to sell drugs, so there is no talk of opening Amsterdam-style hashish bars.


People caught with small amounts clearly intended for “personal and immediate use” and who are not known members of cartels will not be criminally prosecuted. They will be told of available clinics, and encouraged to enter a rehabilitation program. Rehab is mandatory when a user is caught a third time.

The permitted amounts include 5 grams of marijuana and 500 milligrams of cocaine -- enough for four or five pot cigarettes or four lines of coke -- and up to 40 milligrams of methamphetamine and 50 milligrams of heroin.

With the law, Calderon risks rankling his closest ally in the drug war: the U.S. Mexico’s previous attempts to legalize drugs proved very controversial. When the Mexican Congress approved a similar decriminalization law in 2006, then-President Vicente Fox was forced to veto it under U.S. pressure.

In April, when the new law was making its way through the Mexican legislature, Michele Leonhart, acting director of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said legalization “would be a failed law enforcement strategy for both the U.S. and Mexico.”

Visiting Mexico in July, however, the United States’ so-called drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, said he would take a “wait-and-see” attitude. If sanctions were “completely nonexistent . . . that would be a concern,” he added.

Still, Calderon’s government has shown signs of being worried about ruffling feathers in Washington. There was no official announcement that Calderon had signed the law; it was merely published in the official government paper of record.


The law was approved by Congress in late April, at the height of the flu outbreak that had grabbed the country’s attention. And when The Times wrote about the law in June, Calderon’s office would not discuss it.

The law requires local and state authorities to join in cracking down on illegal drug sales instead of leaving enforcement completely in the hands of federal authorities, and that in turn could bolster the broader war against the cartels, analysts said.

“The good thing about the law is that it sets up federal and local cooperation,” said Samuel Gonzalez, an analyst who served as Mexico’s top anti-drug prosecutor in the 1990s. But, he said, it doesn’t go far enough in setting up prevention and treatment programs, and, consequently, could lead to increased drug consumption.

Many in Mexico applauded the legislation because it shifts minor drug use away from courts and jails and into the realm of public health.

In practice, minor consumption was rarely punished in Mexico and often left to the discretion of a court or an arresting officer, which in turn led to corruption when police officers used the arrests to extort money from the offenders. Fewer than 15% of people arrested for possessing small amounts of drugs since late 2006 were charged with a crime, according to the attorney general’s office.

But Mexico is also under-equipped to deal with a growing addiction problem. Government studies estimate that the number of addicts in Mexico has doubled since 2002, and clinics and rehab centers can handle only a fraction of them.


The law has won praise from several opposition political parties here and pro-legalization groups in the U.S.

“This new law is a step in the right direction,” Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the U.S.-based Drug Policy Alliance Network, said in a statement. “Mexico is trying to make the right choices on law enforcement priorities.”

Opponents include the Roman Catholic Church and a number of experts in social work, addiction treatment and at-risk youths. Permitting any use, they argued, implicitly condones the sale and purchase of drugs and results in more earnings for the big cartels the government is battling.