Published On: Mon, May 23rd, 2016

OPINION: Peña Nieto sides with inevitable change in loosening Mexico’s marijuana laws

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In The New York Times, Ioan Grillo, author of “Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields and the New Politics of Latin America,” wrote this column on President Enrique Peña Nieto’s recent move toward legalization of marijuana in Mexico.

When the Mexican Army actually allows journalists to watch its soldiers in action, it’s often to see them burning marijuana crops. It’s strictly for show, but it’s fun. You get to fly in a military helicopter over the Sierra Madre, then touch down to see troops posing with their rifles as they walk into green marijuana fields. And the highlight: You watch hundreds of pounds of grass go up in flames.

Mexican soldiers have been conducting this ritual for decades, and the photos have come to define the country’s war on drugs. But amid a wave of drug policy reform, those photos may soon disappear from news pages and be relegated to historical archives.

Enrique Peña Nieto, President of Mexico, called for decriminalization of drug use in a speech at the UN on Tuesday April 19. (PHOTO: United Nations)

Enrique Peña Nieto, President of Mexico, called for decriminalization of drug use in a speech at the UN on Tuesday April 19. (PHOTO: United Nations)


Speaking last month at the United Nations special session on drugs, President Enrique Peña Nieto said he wanted to relax the nation’s marijuana laws. He has since sent Mexico’s Congress a bill to legalize medicine that contains cannabis, allow people to carry an ounce of marijuana without being prosecuted, and free some prisoners convicted on marijuana charges. “We Mexicans know all too well the range and the defects of prohibitionist and punitive policies, and of the so-called war on drugs that has prevailed for 40 years,” he said.

Mr. Peña Nieto is new to the drug-reform game. Only last year, he said he was against legalizing marijuana, and at one point said he was not even going to attend the United Nations session.

What happened? He seems to have realized (or been advised) that it is better to be on the side of inevitable change. The proposal follows the rapid loosening of drug laws in the United States: Four states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical and recreational marijuana, and 20 more states now permit it as medicine. The president’s shift also follows a November ruling by Mexico’s Supreme Court, which held that the government had no constitutional right to arrest people for their “civil right” of growing cannabis.

And more is coming soon. In November, Californians could vote on an initiative to legalize marijuana. If America’s richest state, and one on the border, votes yes, it will have a huge impact on Mexico. Why would the Mexican government want to crack down on traffickers taking marijuana into California if it were fully legal there?

Various Mexican politicians and activists have come out in favor of wider marijuana legalization. Among them, the opposition senator Mario Delgado has proposed the decriminalization and regulation of cultivation, production and sales across Mexico. The former president Vicente Fox also supports this idea.

Mr. Peña Nieto’s proposals make sense, but there’s even more to be done. The current bill would effectively allow cannabis consumption, but it would leave most of the production and selling of it to the black market — which means largely in the hands of drug cartels.

Marijuana reform in the United States has already eaten into the business of Mexican cartels. In 2011, the year before Colorado and Washington State legalized it, the United States border patrol seized 2.5 million pounds of cannabis coming from Mexico. Last year, with marijuana legal in four states and the District of Columbia, that had fallen to 1.5 million pounds.

Pro-marijuana activists demonstrating in Mexico City recently. (PHOTO: reuters.com)

Pro-marijuana activists demonstrating in Mexico City recently. (PHOTO: reuters.com)


However, even the latest number indicates that a significant amount of marijuana is still being smuggled north. The profits pay the cartels’ assassins, as well as corrupt police officers and soldiers, who discard piles of bodies across Mexico.

Amid these changing dynamics, it becomes more and more pointless for Mexican soldiers (underwritten by the United States, through the Merida Initiative) to keep up the ritual of burning marijuana crops. What is needed, then, is for both countries to move from the current mishmash of laws toward the inevitable conclusion: that marijuana becomes a legalized product that can be traded over borders.

The same market forces that shape the trade in liquor or tobacco will shape the trade in marijuana. Like those, it generates major profits for the formal economy. A research group predicts the legalized marijuana market in the United States will be worth more than $6 billion this year, rising to more than $20 billion by 2020. That could be a boon for the Mexican and United States economies.

A regulated marijuana market won’t suddenly end the bloodshed in Mexico. Cartels would still traffic cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines. The cartels have also diversified to kidnapping, extortion and even oil theft, crimes that can be dealt with only by markedly improved Mexican police forces.

But marijuana reform will help immensely. Many in the ranks of Mexican cartels take their first step into the crime world by growing, smuggling or selling pot. That link would be cut, and legal jobs created. Mexican security forces could finally leave the marijuana issue behind to focus on real problems.

The United Nations special session on drugs was heavy on empty talk, but several positive things came out of it. One was that there is no appetite to make countries abide by the United Nations treaties that prohibit the legalization of marijuana. Another is that a range of voices across the world are calling for a new approach to drug policy. The growth of a legalized, binational marijuana market would be a step toward turning those calls into reality.

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