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Legalising marijuana is no easy fix for Mexico’s drug problem

Many Mexicans want to legalise. But then what? Vincent Guérault

Calls for the legalisation of marijuana in the Americas have gathered pace in recent years. Nearly half US states have decreed in favour of the legal use of medical marijuana and last month Uruguay was the first Latin American country to decriminalise marijuana use completely.

Over the past decade former Latin American presidents including Ernesto Zedillo and Vicente Fox from Mexico and Fernando Henrique Cardoso from Brazil have joined the campaign to legalise the drug. And in May the Organization of American States announced that legalisation and decriminalisation were both valid policy options.

Increasing high-level political support throughout the Western Hemisphere has jump-started discussion on legalisation in Mexico. The shift is extremely important. Although the country has lost around 100,000 citizens to the war on drugs over the past six years, debate on legalisation has predominantly still taken place in the bars and coffee shops around the national university in Mexico City.

Into the mainstream

But over the past month, talk of decriminalisation has filled the pages of the country’s dailies. In Mexico City, the mayor, Miguel Ángel Mancera, a member of the left-wing Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) has called for a national debate. And two local PRD politicians are preparing a draft bill, similar to those introduced in Uruguay and the US state of Colorado, to legalise cannabis in the city.

Meanwhile academics and politicians have weighed in on either side. Former secretaries of state, Pedro Aspe Armella, Fernando Gómez Mont, and Jorge Castañeda as well as the PRD governor of Morelos state have all declared in favour of the proposal. More right-wing politicians have voiced opposition on grounds of health, U.S. disapproval and often rather long-winded and, for Mexican politicians at least, hypocritical pleas for family values. (This is a country where the only president who did not conduct a high level affair was mercilessly mocked for his sexual weediness).

Without doubt these debates mark a sea change among Mexico’s political intelligentsia. At the same time, they are designed not only for Mexican but also for US consumption, and it is no accident that Casteñeda’s recent call for legalisation was published in Time magazine.

By legalising marijuana, could the country force the U.S. to do the same? Only time will tell. However, two rather pertinent points have been all but ignored in this debate. Both go to the heart of Mexico’s increasingly ambiguous relationship with illegal drugs.

A unwanted change

First, most Mexicans are firmly opposed to legalisation. A recent poll by Sin Embargo suggested that 48% were against legalisation, while only 13% were in favour.

As Isaac Campos argues, in his brilliant book on the early days of the war on drugs, most Mexicans still maintain that marijuana causes violence and psychosis. The belief emerged during the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz at the end of the nineteenth century, and was used to justify the imprisonment of both the indigenous and urban poor. The crime pages of national newspaper rarely mentioned a case of murder or theft, without adding that the perpetrators were addicted to cannabis.

After a brief flirtation with legalisation during the immediate post-revolutionary period (the great Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera issued a famous call for the drug’s decriminalisation), politicians and journalists returned to a modified version of the late-nineteenth century discourse. By the 1970s, dope-addled kids were not only held to be potential terrorists and murderers, but marijuana was judged to cause hallucinations of “monkeys, devils and evil things”. Scientific thinking may have moved on, but popular perception has not.

The liberal, trailblazing Mexico City government may be able to pass a bill in favour of decriminalisation, just as it legalised abortion. But, for provincial governors and the president, legalisation could prove political suicide.

Not the solution

Second, and perhaps more importantly in a country where public opinion is often ignored, would Mexican legalisation change anything? Probably not. Debate still rages over how much marijuana grown in Mexico stays in the country. But, recent figures suggest that while national consumption is increasing, most marijuana is still shipped over the border. Legalisation might create a tier of small, legal peasant producers and an urban layer of new commercial dope entrepreneurs. The big bucks would still come from trafficking though, and legalisation would not stop the violent conflicts over routes into the US.

In fact, it is even open to debate as to whether US legalisation would improve the situation. Economists argue that up to 60% of the cartels’ money comes from the sale of marijuana. Mexico’s most important criminal organisation, the Sinaloa cartel, probably gains an even greater proportion of its wealth from the drug. Yet, would cutting off the cash from cannabis change much? Some traffickers would move more heavily into cocaine transportation and methamphetamine production. And conflicts over routes would continue. Others might shift into the legal marijuana trade, building on their contacts with peasant growers to dominate the new industry.

Yet, this could cause its own problems. For centuries, the introduction of commercial crops into rural Mexico has caused bloody disputes. High profits not only lead to increased tension over land and commercial control, but also the breakdown of traditional systems of conflict resolution and social balance.

In the 1950s, conflicts over the cultivation and commercial monopoly of coffee production caused what observers described as “civil wars” in coffee growing regions like Oaxaca, Guerrero and Veracruz. In southern Oaxaca, family blood feuds and inter-village fire fights pushed the homicide rate up to over 300 murders per 100,000. (In comparison, the murder rate in Ciudad Juarez in 2009 was 130 per 100,000.) Legalising marijuana then might simply shift the battlefield from the desert-bound cities of the north to the poor rural villages of the south.

As Alfredo Corchado, one of the leading journalists on the war on drugs and author of the devastating portrait of the country’s decline, Midnight in Mexico, has recently argued, debate about legalisation is a little more than a sideshow. Mexico’s fundamental problem is still the complete lack of a functioning judicial system. In Mexico there are no open hearings and no juries. Judges remain subservient to politicians and the system determines one guilty until proven innocent.

It is these legal problems, and not the drug trade itself, that add up to a structure where murderers regularly walk free. The jails, meanwhile, remain full of the innocent, the poor, and the indigenous. Only when this is resolved will the real murder rates - and not the heavily massaged official figures - truly fall.

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