Will Mexico’s New Leader Reshape Its Drug Policies?

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Mexico’s next president will take office at the end of 2018, and among the many big puzzles he must solve is how to deal with the nation’s dangerous and powerful illegal drug trade. He has been careful not to say much about what policies he will pursue, but there have been strong hints.

Back in 2006, more than half a million people took to the already-crowded streets of Mexico City to protest the defeat of presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, often referred to by his initials, AMLO. According to widely reported accounts, the protesters hailed from throughout the country, and they demanded a recount, as López Obrador reportedly lost to right-wing candidate Felipe Calderón by just 0.57%.

Soon after, President Calderón doubled down on Mexico’s already thirty-year-old drug war, but the effort failed to curb the flow of illegal substances and cost, by some estimates, more than one hundred thousand lives, as the president continued sending soldiers to quell rising violence. Then, in 2012, the war was taken up by President Enrique Peña Nieto, whose tenure has been marked by corruption scandals; retaliatory acts against the press; the murder of tens of thousands of  more people, including eighteen journalists; and thousands of inconsolable citizens who’ve taken it upon themselves to find their missing loved ones.

On July 1, twelve years after his defeat, López Obrador once again stood before thousands of people in el Zócalo, the country’s main public square. This time, however, they gathered to celebrate. I was there to cover his third bid for the presidency for Cannabis Wire, and López Obrador emerged triumphant. As strips of white and red confetti fell on his audience, the former mayor of Mexico City took his wife’s hand and walked to the podium. “Amigas y amigos,” he began, “I’m here to thank you for your support, for your faith in me . . .”

The one thing most pundits agree on is that López Obrador’s landslide victory is a resounding rejection of the status quo, particularly of the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Indeed, the core promises of his campaign—to end corruption, stem violence, and address the country’s poverty—were popular with voters wary of ties between cartels and public servants, voters who refuse to grow accustomed to bodies hanging from freeways and heads strewn on the streets. But just how the president-elect will go about delivering on these promises remains unclear.

Still, on drug policy, at least, there are signs. On its website, López Obrador’s political party, MORENA, referred to the current government’s “ill-advised” war on drugs, underscoring that its emphasis on coercive measures and violation of human rights has resulted in the death of thousands. MORENA didn’t go far beyond that. But while on the campaign trail, López Obrador repeatedly hinted that he’d be in favor of doing away with the prohibition of certain drugs, like cannabis and opium.

His reticence to provide details, perhaps, was part of a strategy to avoid campaign hiccups. In December, for instance, López Obrador pitched the idea of granting amnesty to leaders of Mexico’s drug cartels, with the approval of its victims, in an effort to help achieve peace in the country. In response, his opponents and conservative critics had a field day. To assuage voters’ fears of impunity and rampant drug addiction, López Obrado simultaneously walked back the idea and began to sketch a more comprehensive approach. When a woman in Culiacán questioned whether he would legalize drugs, the New Yorker reported, López Obrador spoke of “youth programs, new employment opportunities, education, and (…) tending to the abandoned countryside”—all in an effort to quell narcotrafficking. The link between cartels and the lack of education is not unfounded. According to one study from the Mexican Senate, eight in ten federal prisoners for drug crimes did not complete high school.

“We’ll analyze everything and explore all the avenues that will let us achieve peace,” López Obrador told his audience in Culiacán, somewhat vaguely. But then he added this: “I don’t rule out anything, not even legalization—nothing.”

Still, in January, when Mexico’s Secretary of Tourism suggested legalizing cannabis in tourist areas as a means to curb rising crime, López Obrador avoided the subject. “I’m not going to get into this,” he told journalists. “I don’t want you to take my responses out of context.”  

During a presidential debate in May, however, López Obrador continued flirting with legalization. “Why not give it a try?” he asked.

After his soaring July 1 victory, López Obrador vowed to “eradicate” corruption, which he posits as the root of inequality and violence in Mexico. And in front of an estimated 500 reporters from around the world, he also pledged to work alongside the United States government.

If López Obrador were to pursue some form of drug legalization, it wouldn’t be Mexico’s first time. Mexico, in fact, did away with prohibition, briefly, in the 1940s.

As Benjamin Smith, a historian at the University of Warwick, points out, under president Lázaro Cárdenas, the purchase and sale of small quantities of drugs—including cannabis, cocaine, and heroin—were decriminalized. Doctors were also permitted to prescribe narcotics to addicts, and the government established clinics that offered the products at prices so low they paralyzed the black market.

The policy, however, lasted no more than six months, and the United States had a lot to do with its demise.

Five days after Mexico introduced its law, the U.S. Department of State invoked the Law on Importation and Exportation of Narcotic Drugs, which allowed the U.S. to establish an export embargo for narcotics like morphine and cocaine when it deemed that the receiving country’s objectives were neither medicinal nor scientific.

According to Smith, Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs tried to defend the legislation, arguing that the experiment was more effective than the previous punitive system. But Harry Anslinger, director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, remained obstinate. As a result, all exports of morphine and cocaine to Mexico were suspended in May 1940 and authorities were compelled to cancel the program.

Fast forward to 2018: Mexico just elected a man who is a self-proclaimed fan of president Lázaro Cárdenas. López Obrador will also hold a majority in Congress, which could give him more power to enact policy.

In his July 1 victory speech, the president-elect finally began to tease out his plan to curb violence, in relation to prohibition. Starting this week, he pledged, he will consult with human rights groups, religious leaders, the United Nations, and other organizations to forge a “Peace and Reconciliation Plan for Mexico,” which will include a new office: the Sub-Secretary of Transitional Justice, Human Rights, and Attention to Victims. One of the division’s tasks will be to create Truth Commissions to investigate cases like the 2014 disappearance of forty-three students in Guerrero.

In an interview with Reuters, Olga Sánchez Cordero, López Obrador’s pick for interior minister, said that the new administration will begin making “dramatic decisions” starting day one. She also added that some of López Obrador’s long-term goals do, in fact, include decriminalizing the recreational use of cannabis and the cultivation of opium for medicinal purposes. López Obrador’s team, she said, has also been studying Colombia’s peace process with guerrilla groups, which involves clemency for those who admit guilt. In Mexico’s case, the opportunity for “transitional justice” would be reserved for non-violent lawbreakers, such as farmers who have grown cannabis or poppy flowers because they were forced to do so by cartels, or due to economic need. Those who’ve been caught transporting illegal substances would also be included. In recent years, these prisoners have tended to be women, whose incarceration rate increased by 103% between 2014 and 2016

In another interview with the Mexican media, Sánchez Cordero underscored that the victims of the drug war are central to the Peace and Reconciliation Plan. Their right to “truth, access to justice, reparations and mechanisms to ensure that the crimes are not repeated,” she said, must be upheld, and all decisions related to the plan will be have to be approved by Congress.

Olga Guzmán Vergara, who represents the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights, welcomes the proposals set forth by the incoming administration.

“It’s an ambitious and necessary paradigm shift,” she said, in an interview with Cannabis Wire. “And we’re particularly enthusiastic about the emphasis López Obrador has placed on impunity, as this makes it impossible to put an end to the cycle of murder, torture, forced disappearances and displacement.” In addition to doing away with prohibition and taking on amnesty, the Mexican Commision points to the need for an autonomous attorney general and the repeal of Mexico’s current Ley de Seguridad Interna (Domestic Security Act), which allows for the military to indefinitely assume roles that normally fall under the jurisdiction of the police.

Even amid the drug war, Mexico has already been inching towards the legalization of cannabis. Currently, its citizens are allowed to possess up to five grams of the plant. In 2016, president Enrique Peña Nieto proposed increasing the quantity to twenty-eight grams. His proposal was rejected. However, since 2017, hundreds of Mexican citizens have been able to apply for permits to import medical cannabis products. Moreover, on three occasions, Mexico’s Supreme Court has ruled in favor of plaintiffs who claimed that outlawing the possession and use of cannabis represents a violation of fundamental human rights. And while these rulings don’t mean that cannabis is legal in the country, a fifth ruling would set a precedent that courts around the country would be obliged to follow, which could bring about national legislative change.

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