Smoking South

by Catherine Osborn:

For the fourth time in three years, a controversial bill sits before the Mexican Congress. In response to the drug-related violence currently corroding the Mexican state, the bill proposes that people caught carrying up to two grams of marijuana or opium, half a gram of cocaine, 50 milligrams of heroin, or 40 milligrams of methamphetamines should face no criminal charges.

Federal troops patrol the streets in the border city and drug portal of Tijuana, Mexico (Flickr).

Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s small-scale decriminalization plan follows former President Vicente Fox’s similar—and failed—attempt in 2006. Fox wanted to appear open to unconventional measures for addressing drug-related violence, but pressure from the Catholic Church and U.S. and Mexican politicians “made it virtually impossible to talk about any solution to the war on drugs other than increased law enforcement,” explained border expert and Yale latin American Studies Professor Alicia Schmidt Camacho.

The decriminalization bill comes at the end of the drug war’s most violent year to date. From 2007 to 2008, the mortality rate increased by over 100 percent, from 2,700 to 6,616 casualties. More people died from drug-related problems in Mexico in the last year than U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq in the past five years.

Public fear of drug violence varies in different parts of the country. “People have the image that if you go to Mexico and put your foot on the sidewalk, you will get killed,” said Regina Garza, 19, a freshman at Monterrey Technological University. In her city, she claimed, “it’s not true,” but the statement does apply closer to the northern border. San diego undergraduate Maru diaz, also 19, described her family’s move across the border to avoid violence: “My father still commutes to work at his tile shop in Tijuana during the week, but he switches his hours each day to stay safe.”

Advocates of decriminalization point out that it would allow the Mexican government to better regulate drug flow, profit from taxing the drugs, and save law enforcement resources for the most dangerous organized drug smuggling. Opponents argue that cartels will continue to fight for territory and spread violence regardless of whether their product is legal. Moreover, as Garza explained to the Globalist, drug networks have penetrated Mexican society too deeply to be pulled out by mere legislation: “These drug dealers are people among us. They go to our schools and churches.” despite the pervasive nature of drugs and drug culture, many oppose decriminalization on moral grounds.

Decriminalization is such a sensitive issue because the Mexican government wants to “appear tough on crime and strong on security” according to Camacho, since “no one could be a credible leader without taking this strong policing approach.” daniel Kurtz-Phelan, a senior editor and latin America specialist at Foreign Affairs, added, “Policy analysts agree that spending on treatment and to a lesser extent prevention is more efficient than supply-side solutions.” He explained, however, that supply-side programs in which federal troops destroy drug fields and incarcerate traffickers are the first to go when there are budget problems.

In the past two years, Calderón has sent 45,000 troops into the most dangerous states to track cartels and clean up local police corruption. The United States has supported this operation with almost $300 million in law enforcement aid since June 2008 alone. The more dramatic approach of direct American troop involvement is unlikely to be enacted, as such a move would threaten Mexican sovereignty. The prospect of U.S. boots on Mexican soil conjures up the memory of Plan Colombia, the controversial U.S. aid program that sent troops, arms, and helicopters by the thousands to burn coca fields in Columbia in the past decade.

Increased Mexican law enforcement remains the only politically feasible approach. Kurtz-Phelan commented, “Most people actually involved in enforcement understand that it is less a matter of ending drug trafficking than it is a matter of containing violence by breaking up the big cartels.” Still, this strategy of hard-line law enforcement seems to guarantee a future of escalated bloodshed that Mexico can scarcely afford. Regardless of whether the decriminalization bill passes, legislators should give it serious consideration as part of a commitment to all methods of solving the drug crisis, conventional and otherwise.

Catherine Osborn is a freshman in Pierson College.