Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Mexican Drug Policy Reform Movement Takes Shape

International Conference in Mexico City Provides Hope, Inspiration to a Budding Domestic Movement

This past February 22 and 23, drug policy experts and organizers from around the world gathered in Mexico City for “Winds of Change: Drug Policy Around the World,” a conference organized by the Collective for a Comprehensive Drug Policy (CUPIHD).

The conference was the first event CUPIHD has organized as a collective. Jorge Hernández Tinajero, CUPIHD’s president, told Narco News, “All of [CUPIHD’s members] have been working on this issue for at least ten years from our respective areas of expertise.” However, it was only recently that they joined forces under the banner of CUPIHD, which they founded last year “in order to transform the drug policy in Mexico to one with a harm reduction and human rights perspective.” According to fellow CUPIHD member and former federal Congresswoman Elsa Conde, the Winds of Change conference “is just the beginning.”

At the conference, drug policy experts from Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Holland, the United States, and the United Kingdom shared their experiences in their own countries. While recognizing that the situations in their respective countries were very distinct from that of Mexico, they hoped that Mexicans could learn from their experiences, strategies, tactics, and experiments in drug policy reform.

Pien Metaal from Holland, for example, spoke about the backslide towards criminalization that her country is currently experiencing after years of increasing decriminalization. Her organization,Transnational Institute, analyzes and compares drug policy around the world. Metaal provided a broad overview of how various European and Latin American countries have experimented in decriminalization. She focused on the various ways governments have reclassified drug distribution, possession, and use as they move towards decriminalization, giving conference participants a variety of options to consider and advocate for as they fight for reform in their own countries. She noted that in order to move towards more just sentencing policies, many countries have begun to draw legal distinctions between different drugs, between users and dealers, between dealers and major distributors, between mules* and large-scale traffickers, and between small and large producers.

The Transnational Institute has also compiled information from studies in countries that have decriminalized drug use to some extent in order to draw conclusions about the impact of drug decriminalization on drug use and drug-related crime. Metaal argues, based on an analysis of available data from various countries, that “law enforcement measures are not effective in reducing the expansion of drug markets. Rather, it is the poorest and most marginalized people and families who pay the price of these policies. There is sufficient evidence that alternative policies do not increase [drug] consumption, but they do increase access to [prevention and rehabilitation] services and medical attention.”

Ethan Nadelmann from the US-based Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) spoke during two plenary sessions. Nadelmann explained how and why his organization has focused most of its efforts on legalizing medical marijuana in the United States. While the DPA seeks to “end the war on drugs” in general, it has chosen medical marijuana as a wedge issue, one that seeks to remove or reduce stigmatization associated with drugs and open the door to a broader debate on the war on drugs. “We hoped and we believed that by working on the use of medical marijuana, it would begin to transform the public dialogue around marijuana,” Nadelmann said. “It would change the conversation, and we hoped it would reduce the resistance to speaking about marijuana legalization more broadly. I think we’ve been successful in that regard.”

Nadelmann told the mostly Mexican audience that he was by no means arguing that Mexican drug reformers should also take up the cause of medical marijuana. Rather, he said, “If you look at the way drug policy reform evolves and educationally leaps forward in different parts of the world, it can be for very different reasons… Each place is different. I think in Mexico you are still looking and struggling for what will be the angle, the specific thing that enables Mexico to leap forward on this debate. In the United States it was medical marijuana.”

Nadelmann argues in choosing a key issue to focus on in order to advance the movement, drug reformers must ask, “Where can we get traction? Where can we dig in? Where can we make a stand in order to begin to fight back?” As Nadelmann points out, a good issue to begin with in policy reform is the issue most people can agree upon—an issue where most people believe the drug war has gone too far.

Nadelmann, while reminding conference attendees that he is not an expert on Mexico and is not in a position to tell Mexicans how to go about building a drug reform movement, “guessed” at what might be key issues in Mexico that the movement could seize upon. “My advice, take it for what its worth, is to focus on moving opinion in Mexico on the marijuana issue. It is almost impossible to speak realistically in political terms about the legalization of cocaine or heroine or methamphetamine, but with marijuana yes, it is possible, and it can happen,” Nadelmann argued. “In Mexico right now only 30% of Mexicans support the legalization of marijuana. Mexico needs a rapid jump in support for the legalization of marijuana. And it needs to be linked in the public mind that legalizing marijuana is the best way to deprive the drug gangsters of billions of dollars.” Nadelmann noted that the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the US drug tsar claim that at least half of Mexican drug gangs’ earnings come from marijuana.

Nadelmann also shared several examples of how his organization seized on specific opportunities to launch campaigns that changed people’s opinions on drug policy. InTulia, Texas, for example, forty black people were arrested in a drug raid, with the only evidence against them being the testimony of a single white police officer. All of the prisoners were later released. Drug policy reform organizations seized on the case to foment a criticism of drug policy, which disproportionately affects black and brown communities in the US, within the traditionally socially conservative black community.

Nadelmann believes that Mexico is also living an educational moment, one that can be seized upon to open up a debate on drug policy. “Currently, there are places in Mexico that look like Chicago during the era of Prohibition and Al Capone. If there has ever been a moment to question the costs and benefits of prohibitionist policies, the moment is now.”

Several conference attendees wondered out loud if the key to moving the Mexican public on drug policy reform lies in Ciudad Juarez, the new “murder capital of the world.” A journalist pointed out that President Felipe Calderon’s recent visit to Juarez was a complete disaster. On February 11,police violently attacked a protest outside the convention center where Calderon was to speak on security. Many of the protesters were students from the Juarez high school that suffered a massacrein which gunmen murdered at least 15 people—mostly students—at a party. Inside the convention center, the mother of a murdered student railed against a speechless Calderon for three minutes. Given the recent unrest against government policy in Juarez, the journalist told conference attendees, “I think there is something going on in Juarez and El Paso. Even if it’s just ‘We don’t want aggressive law enforcement, we don’t want the military in our community,’ even if that’s the only result, it softens people up” and opens up the possibility of a debate on broader drug policy reform.

In addition to choosing a key issue to push in order to advance drug reform, Nadelmann offers a second piece of advice to Mexican drug policy reformers: “Insist on the legitimacy of open dialogue. The worst prohibition is a prohibition on thinking. When the government engages not just in censorship, but in self-censorship, and when it discourages and denies the possibility of open and honest dialogue, it undermines the ability to come to a better policy, and it reveals their own fears and securities about the value and legitimacy of the policies they are enforcing.”

While Mexicans may still be grappling with how to take their first steps towards building an effective movement to end the drug war, CUPIHD’s conference made a giant leap forward in promoting an open and honest debate on the issue. While the drug war is omnipresent and discussed nearly constantly in the media, in Congress, in schools, and on the streets, false information abounds. This prevents an honest and informed debate on how to go about fixing what everyone acknowledges is a serious problem.

Two Mexican experts in particular debunked common misconceptions about the drug war in order to promote a more honest debate based on accurate information. Professor Alejandro Madrazo, a member of CUPIHD, discussed Mexico’s recent legal reform that the media billed as “drug legalization.” He pointed out that while the government did legalize the possession of very small quantities of drugs, the majority of users generally carry more than the legally permitted amount. Thanks to the new law, this consumer “is being pursued with more force and more tools,” and the law makes the prosecution of consumers much easier. Furthermore, Madrazo argued, the law seeks to forcefully incorporate states into the federal government’s war on drugs, and it redistributes power and responsibilities in that war. The end result, he argues, is far from legalization.

Luis Astorga from the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Institute for Social Investigations debunked many of the government’s so-called statistics that relate to the war on drugs. “Nearly every day the media gives credibility to declarations from public officials, but they never demand that they show a study and a methodology for how they arrived at those numbers.”

Astorga taught conference attendees how to evaluate the numbers they hear in the media, particularly those that come from the government, to determine if they are credible or questionable. In doing so, Astorga systematically debunked or called into question statements Mexican and US government officials have made in the media regarding the amount of Mexican land that is used for cultivating drugs, the number of people who work in drug trafficking, the amount of money drug trafficking brings into the Mexican economy, and the number of drug consumers and addicts.

Moving Forward

Ex-Congresswoman Conde closed the conference with the following words:

“There is no doubt that we recognize the failure of the so-called war on drugs. We require new winds of change to advance alternative policies for the world’s drug problem. We have seen that prohibitionist policies have not been effective in most countries. This paradigm has resulted in grave human rights violations and violations of individual rights. It has also entailed discrimination and social exclusion. The escalating violence increases with every passing day, increasing the territory within which organized crime operates with impunity. We insist that prohibitionist policy means that states have given up their control over the drug market. We insist that prohibition, in market terms, is much more costly and useless than regulation.”

“Now,” Conde asked, “after two days of work and reflection, where do we go from here?

“Gabriel Tokatlian, an Argentinian investigator, invites us to use common sense in drug policy. He tells us that the best policy is one that privileges justice, equality, health, human rights, education, and employment. This is precisely the vision that is absent in current drug policy, at least in our country.”


* A mule or mula is an individual, generally poor, who transports relatively small amounts (less than a few kilos) of drugs, generally in or on their body, at the behest of a large-scale drug trafficker.

This report originally appeared in Narco News.
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