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Mexico's illegal-reefer madness

In the face of a crisis in drug-related violence, Mexico should reconsider its policy criminalizing marijuana.

May 04, 2009|Isaac Campos | Isaac Campos is an assistant professor of history at the University of Cincinnati and a visiting fellow at UC San Diego's Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies.

Last month, Mexico's Congress convened a special forum to consider marijuana policy reform as a remedy for that country's current crisis of violence. The forum bucked a century of staunch prohibitionist history in Mexico, a history that has contributed to the continued criminalization of marijuana use throughout North America.

From early on, marijuana was portrayed in Mexico as a frightening substance that produced madness in its users. In 1897, Revista Medica, one of Mexico's leading scientific journals, reported that marijuana produced "pleasant visions and hallucinations," an "expansion of the spirit that leads to exaltation" but also an "impulsive delirium" with often fatal consequences: "It is true that in other regions the delirium that is produced by marijuana is a turbulent one, but in our country it reaches the point of furor, terrible and blind impulse, and leads to murder."

Although use of the drug was not widespread at the time, the plant was increasingly seen as a national menace and, in 1920, was banned. Gradually, the idea that marijuana was dangerous seeped into the United States, fostering American notions of "reefer madness" and eventually helping to inspire marijuana prohibition here as well (in 1937).

Since then, Mexico has continued to be tough on marijuana, even in the face of softening U.S. attitudes toward the drug. The last time widespread sentiment for marijuana policy reform emerged in the U.S., it was Mexico that leveled some of the harshest criticism against the trend. "We don't accept that marijuana is less important than heroin," Mexican Atty. Gen. Pedro Ojeda Paullada declared in 1974.

A few years later, a scandal over use of the herbicide paraquat on Mexican marijuana fields produced a similar response from Ojeda's successor, Oscar Flores Sanchez. Paraquat spraying, which often failed to completely destroy the targeted crops, led to the sale of poison-soaked pot to unknowing consumers in both countries.

Public outcry in the U.S. inspired congressional action that threatened to eliminate funding for the program if the paraquat spraying continued. Behind closed doors, Flores went ballistic, warning that if the United States refused to back Mexico's war on marijuana, Mexico might go soft on heroin, the major U.S. priority of that era.

Mexico is now being forced to reevaluate these policies. Ironically, decades of being "tough" on drugs has produced a new link between marijuana and violence, but of a different kind. Indeed, the nation's "drug-related" violence today might more accurately be termed "drug-policy-related" violence.

The mafias behind the current tsunami of killings -- more than 6,000 last year -- are a product of the extraordinary black-market profits that drug prohibition generates. And because 60% of the profits earned by Mexican traffickers come from marijuana sales, legalization in both Mexico and the U.S. would deliver a potentially debilitating blow to these powerful gangs.

Unfortunately, the Mexican public remains overwhelmingly opposed to marijuana legalization, with only 14% in favor, according to a February poll by Parametria, a public opinion research firm based in Mexico City. According to CBS News, by contrast, nearly 40% of Americans say they would favor legalization if the drug could be taxed and proceeds used to fund state budgets. Given those numbers, it is hardly surprising that many Mexican legislators chose not to attend last month's forum.

Indeed, full legalization apparently had few supporters at the forum in April. Instead, many delegates backed half-measures, such as the formal decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. Such measures, though a significant departure from the past, nevertheless promise to do very little to alleviate Mexico's current crisis of violence.

Although decriminalization would free up law enforcement to concentrate on trafficking, this would merely exacerbate the fundamental paradox at the heart of drug policy -- that by raising prices, law enforcement increases the economic incentive to traffic in drugs.

Thus, unless decriminalization is accompanied by a successful program of "education" that persuades people to abstain from using a drug that is relatively innocuous in comparison with, say, alcohol or tobacco, it won't do much to stem the violence. Education efforts should instead focus on undermining old prejudices that prevent meaningful reform in Mexico and the United States.

Last month's forum at least opened a dialogue among Mexicans. That is certainly a step in the right direction. But if we hope to use legislative reform to reduce Mexico's drug-policy-related violence, Mexico and the United States need to go all the way on marijuana legalization.

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