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Legalization advocates the hope of ending the Mexican drug warfare

A determined political movement to end the war on drugs has taken shape across Europe and North America. Harm reduction proponents say that if only the state moves away from punishing drug users, lives can be saved and resources saved. Some predict that the state might even regulate the production and sale of once illegal substances.

Just last month, voters in Oregon and politicians in Vancouver, British Columbia approved plans to decriminalize all illicit drugs and pave the way for an approach to healthcare. They follow the example of Portugal, which decriminalized drugs in 2001 and was overall successful. More than a dozen US states have legalized the recreational use of cannabis, as well as Canada, South Africa, Uruguay, and a few other countries and jurisdictions.

However, proponents of decriminalizing or even legalizing drugs have mainly focused on the world's largest drug importers, often overlooking the countries responsible for producing and trading drugs to meet the demand of rich countries.

States like Mexico.

When Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, won the presidency in 2018, he sensibly and cautiously promised to end the costly drug war – an appealing proposition for voters tired of the violence that killed 150,000 people in Dec. Years. He vowed that he would withdraw money and recruits from the criminal gangs with a social justice approach. His slogan was "hugs, not bullets."

As president, he put forward a five-year plan calling for a "new paradigm" in the judiciary. It was a realization that neither the police nor the military could itself eradicate the demand for drugs in Mexico, much less in customer markets like the United States – and as long as there was demand, supply would follow. Drug reform advocates hailed AMLO as a leader.

And yet the plan seems to have failed two years later. Violence is on. The gangs were not evicted. Other countries have warned against unnecessary travel to various Mexican states. Nebulous plans to advance control of the cultivation and production of opium poppies appear to have dissolved.

Mexico is only now facing the legalization of cannabis. The jury is unsure whether this plan will harm the cartels' wealth.

Proponents of drug reform, however, urge patience, warning that nothing will be easy about ending the drug war in Mexico.

Police officers carry sacks of marijuana during a raid in Mexico City on July 4th. They arrested three drug dealers with bags of 140 kilos of marijuana. Owen Granados / Eyepix Group / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Mexico's booming illegal cannabis industry has existed for decades mainly to meet demand in the US market. The U.S. Border Protection Agency seized 858,000 pounds of marijuana at the Mexican border in fiscal 2017 alone, which is only a fraction of the drug entering the country.

Pot has long been a cash harvest for the cartels. Confirmation of the exact numbers may be sketchy, but a 2007 US government report estimated that the cannabis trade from Mexico to the US made them somewhere in the $ 10 billion ballpark – more than cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine combined . This huge number was due to increasing demand and efforts to eradicate US domestic production.

Since Richard Nixon's presidency, the White House has tried desperately and in vain to stem this flow. Nixon launched Operation Intercept and deployed thousands of border guards to stop and search virtually anything and everyone coming from Mexico in hopes of getting the Mexican government to escalate drug trafficking by suffocating trafficking and travel. It did not work. In the 1980s, then-President Ronald Reagan dispatched the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) south of the border and then launched Operation Intercept II, roughly equivalent to the first operation after the cartels killed one of its agents. That didn't work either. The United States maintained its secret operations in Mexico until 1998 when a massive undercover government money laundering bust smeared an egg in the face, resulting in new rules for the way the DEA operates in Mexico.

Washington has tried economic blackmail, it has tried to work together, and it has tried to just do things itself. Nothing it tried worked.

But as the United States stepped up enforcement at the border, Mexico relaxed its own laws – as did growing parts of the United States.

Mexico decriminalized small amounts of marijuana for personal use in 2009. Since then, however, legal challenges have shifted from the courts, arguing that the laws prohibiting the cultivation and sale of recreational marijuana are illegal. The Supreme Court agreed, finding that the law violated Mexicans' rights to use cannabis. Following five court rulings invalidating the law, the Supreme Court ordered the government to rewrite the law in October 2018, just before López Obrador took office.

A litany of competing plans has been introduced into lawmakers to push legalization forward. However, there was a growing consensus that a legalization plan must be realistic about what victories it can actually achieve.

"Of course we believe that drug cartels' revenues will decline," said Laura Rojas Hernández, congresswoman of the opposition National Action Party, in a telephone interview. "My personal opinion is that it won't have much of an impact."

She emphasized, "This is a discussion about rights – it's not a discussion about violence."

Activists display marijuana paraphernalia and grow crops outside the country's Senate building in Mexico City on July 18 at a protest camp to demand the drug's legalization. Ricardo Castelan Cruz / Eyepix Group / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Parts of the legalization regime that lawmakers are expected to put into effect in December are based on the lessons of other jurisdictions. Citizens, for example, are free to grow a small amount of their own crops, but the penalties are severe on those who try to compete with the new legal system. The new regime, however, has uniquely Mexican elements: around 40 percent of the market is reserved for indigenous, low-income and marginalized communities.

"I don't think we have to look to Canada or the US," said Zara Snapp, co-founder of the Instituto RIA, a research group that focuses on justice and drug policy.

Snapp has campaigned for the new regime to include those who are currently making a profit for the drug cartels, such as: B. Consumers, people engaging in narcomenudeo (retail trade), and campesinos (farmers). There's a reason cannabis is a popular cash harvest around the world: it grows abundantly in almost any climate, it costs little to produce and harvest, and its demand seems to have remained constant forever.

Snapp said the way it is legalized will determine how effectively the strategy affects the illegal market.

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"If we successfully regulate cannabis with a focus on social justice and are able to exonerate people who are in jail on cannabis charges, and if the campesinos are involved, this will be a big step in the right direction "said Snapp.

If the state can convince those currently involved in illegal cultivation to join the legal system – through competitive pricing, amnesty for past nonviolent crimes, and a reconciliation of past mistakes made by the state in the name of the drug war – this can create the conditions to slowly loosen the influence of cartels on the drug market. Done wrong, Snapp warned, it could only cement Mexico's status as a drug supplier for its wealthier neighbor.

"We really want to be careful that this isn't another industry that uses Mexico for cheap labor," said Snapp.

The background to this debate is one that both Rojas Hernández and Snapp recognize: Legalizing marijuana in Mexico will not stop the flow of drugs through Mexico.

The simple reality of the Mexican drug trade is that it exists to please the US markets. The population is less than half – and the gross domestic product per capita is about a third – that of the northern neighbor. As long as there is demand for marijuana in the US, Mexican producers will make a profit on delivery. If states continue to legalize, traffickers' profit margins can continue to decline.

However, as long as there are enough US customers, it is worthwhile for the traffickers to continue growing in Mexico.

"The drug cartels are strong enough to keep their prices below the legal rate," said Rojas Hernández.

Members of the Guerrero Community Police patrol an illegal poppy field in Guerrero state on March 25, 2018. PEDRO PARDO / AFP via Getty Images

In Guerrero, a mountain state in southern Mexico, growing poppies is a necessity for many. The agrarian state is one of the poorest in the country, with an average income of less than $ 6,000 a year, and consistently has one of the highest homicide rates of any state. If business goes well, the poppy-made chewing gum that is used to make heroin could fetch nearly $ 600 a pound and provide a quick path out of poverty before the price collapse caused by the arrival of fentanyl hits.

Growing demand in the US meant growing supply in Mexico. Poppy cultivation peaked in 2017. It is estimated that the total area of ​​Mexican poppy fields is 109,000 acres (170 square miles). Just before the fentanyl crash, growing these poppies alone amounted to around $ 1 billion in 2017 for Guerrero and the surrounding areas, which include some of Mexico's poorest communities.

In 2016, Guerrero's governor, Héctor Astudillo, began marketing the idea that the state could transform some of these areas into legal entities. Since the opium gum from the plants can be made into legal medicines, Astudillo suggested that Mexico regulate the fields for medicinal purposes. The profit might be lower, but it would mean farmers don't have to worry about the army destroying their fields.

It would take a couple of years, but Astudillo convinced the state legislature to pass a law calling for the decriminalization of opium poppies for medical purposes in 2018. Then the law was sent to the Federal Senate for approval.

Support for the idea came from an unlikely source: the Mexican Defense Minister. “It's a topic that needs to be discussed. In principle it seems to me to be correct, ”General Salvador Cienfuegos told reporters during a trip to Guerrero earlier this year.

The bill is currently under review, but has not made any progress in the Senate.

But the idea has re-emerged in the debate surrounding government efforts to legalize marijuana. Manuel Añorve Baños, Senator from Guerrero, proposed legislation at that session that would legalize and regulate the cultivation and production of poppy seeds.

Despite growing support, López Obrador is still weighing his options.

The biggest driver of change could be market forces. In 2018, opium gum prices fell off a cliff, in part due to a drop in usage but mainly due to price competition. A pound of gum is now about $ 100 a pound. Production has also decreased significantly.

As is common in the drug trade, the gangs did not want to see a decrease in profits, which meant that the losses were passed on to the farmers. Opium gum prices fell by up to 90 percent in a short period of time.

The decline in heroin popularity in the US appears to be due to a sharp increase in the use of extremely powerful and cheap fentanyl. Some of it appears to be trafficked by the cartels, but not exclusively: Huge quantities of the drug are shipped from China, often via Canada and the United States.

In an effort to diversify their production to be competitive, drug cartels have ramped up methamphetamine production, which is cheaper and easier to produce than ever before, and its effectiveness appears to be skyrocketing. In parts of the United States, methane consumption is skyrocketing.

All of this has created a ripple effect for Mexico, which has not seen high levels of drug use in the past. Recently, the overflowing supply of meth has created a domestic addiction problem. The lack of a heroin market has forced cartels to bring this drug closer to home as well. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on travel and supply chains have only multiplied this effect.

And then there are the deportations.

Efforts by the administration of US President Donald Trump to send undocumented immigrants back to Mexico have also deported those struggling with addiction. It is estimated that around 40 percent of intravenous drug users have been deported from the United States in the Mexican city of Tijuana, which borders San Diego. Curbing drug smuggling into the US has also resulted in more heroin being sold domestically. Accessible addiction clinics are in short supply, and harm reduction measures that have proven successful elsewhere are not common in Mexico.

A man recovering from heroin addiction stands in a doorway after training at the Los Tesoros Escondidos drug rehabilitation center in Tijuana, Mexico on December 14, 2006. Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images

“The intersection of a fragile emerging social structure resulting from the return of nationals through deportation from the United States; structural challenges in treating pain; Lobbying pharmaceutical companies; Increasing the local production, distribution and availability of heroin; and a lack of infrastructure to support evidence-based treatment for opioid use disorder likely increases the risk of a generalized Mexican opioid use epidemic, ”said an article published in the American Journal of Public Health in January 2019.

The changing US demand for increasingly effective drugs has again produced painful results for Mexico.

"The iron prohibition law says we're moving to stronger and usually more harmful substances," said Snapp.

The recent trend has made the demand for legalization and a system that could keep farmers busy, reduce the flood of cheap drugs and help addicts rather than imprisonment, more precise.

Proponents like Snapp wonder if these things can fit together – whether poppy cultivation could be tied into an international harm reduction model.

Snapp was recently in Vancouver to learn more about the specifics of Canada's drug problem. She was impressed by the fact that there was an appetite for alternatives. In late November of this year, Vancouver City Council unanimously approved the decriminalization of drug use for personal property and urged the federal government in Ottawa to formally lift the criminal bans on personal drug use.

"Would you smoke opium instead of injecting heroin or fentanyl?" She remembered asking some users. "Yes," they told her. "But nobody has offered me that before."

The idea is hardly new. At the turn of the 20th century, Vancouver – like New York and San Francisco – was known for its opium poetry. At the time, most of the opium came from colonial India. In fact, the British started two wars to prevent the Chinese government from curbing British imports of the drug.

Over time, the influence of the temperance movement combined with anti-Chinese racism led to Western crackdown on opium that laid the foundation for much of the modern war on drugs.

Following these historical lines – from opium to heroin to fentanyl or from cocaine to crack – seems to support the idea that criminalization leads to more effective drugs. The question that remains is whether this problem can be reversed and legalization will lead to safer alternatives.

While Guerrero can figure out how to regulate his poppy fields, it's just one state of many. Mexico is the third largest heroin producer in the world – albeit way behind Afghanistan, the largest in the world – and large areas of land are perfect for cultivation.

There are few countries abroad where opium gum can be imported, and even these countries would only need tiny amounts. That means nothing about the international conventions against drug trafficking.

Legalizing marijuana could mean some of these farmers can replace their poppy fields with cannabis, but exporting is unlikely to be an option in the short term.

The majority of the poppy farmers still have no way to a legal market. And it doesn't change the fact that the U.S. market is still hungry for opiates. Heroin use may have declined, but heroin has proven to be a remarkably resilient drug.

"Mexico is 100 percent in a difficult place," said Snapp.

A Mexican Marine walks through a marijuana field during a crop destruction mission in the remote mountains of Sinaloa on September 9, 2009. Sarah L. Voisin / The Washington Post via Getty Images

The country has learned that plant eradication is not working. However, decriminalizing crop production is not an obvious solution either.

Marijuana and heroin are just two drugs. If you stroll down the beach in touristy Puerto Vallarta, you will find vendors selling any number of illegal drugs. (Whether they are as advertised is another question.)

Snapp also admitted that legalizing cannabis "is so controversial for society that it will be difficult enough to do otherwise". López Obrador may not have the political capital to advance the poppy growing rules.

Also, just opting for decriminalization, as others have done, is not a solution. "I don't think we can follow Portugal," said Snapp. "We need to think about how you deal with the cultivation."

Mexico is largely on its own here. Rojas Hernández suspects that once cannabis legalization is complete, the state may look to other ways to combat organized crime through the law.

"I think we have to go step by step," said the congresswoman. “We have to solve this first. We try to find the best model that could work for us. "

Rojas Hernández theoretically supports the decriminalization of drugs – she reiterated theoretically emphatically – but said: “The problem with the drug cartels is that nowadays they are not only dealing with drugs, but also with kidnapping, for example. So the problem is huge. "

The reality of Mexico leaves a lot of room for fatalism.

"This won't stop as long as we have a big market next door," said Rojas Hernández. “We have said that for a long time. This is a problem that can only be solved if we work together. "

President-elect Joe Biden vowed during the campaign that "no one should be jailed for drug use alone," and instead committed to drug justice and treatment. It is unclear what this promise will look like, but it signals an intention to stop using the police and law enforcement agencies to solve the problems of addiction and drug use.

While the United States is uniquely responsible for Mexico's rampant opium industry, it is also the country most likely to club international anti-drug treaties should Mexico investigate legalization.

Protesters carry a sign during the Caravan for Peace in Washington, DC on September 10, 2012. The march culminated in a month-long trip from Tijuana to Washington in protest of the drug war in Mexico and the United States. NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP / GettyImages

The fact that so much of Mexico's drug problems are determined by decisions in Washington is the reason why López Obrador's reforms did not show much in terms of results.

Yet he has found surprising solidarity in his own country. Rojas Hernández represents the center-right National Action Party of former presidents Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón, and last year Fox even advocated full legalization. Añorve Baños, the senator who introduced the poppy legalization law, represents the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party of López Obrador's predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto.

The left-wing alliance of López Obrador has a majority in both chambers, so that bipartisan consensus is not absolutely necessary. Nevertheless, the support makes sense.

"We support the government's goal of combating violence," said Rojas Hernández. "We have done everything we can to give the president the institutional tools to do this."

To this end, it is myopic to mark López Obrador's success in narrow metrics. Given that much of Mexico's drug trafficking is driven by the American appetite for illicit substances, its reform efforts need to be gradual and more systematic.

With increasing pressure on Mexico to end the violence, it is unclear whether he can stay on course.

"It will be up to the state to stop being distracted," said Snapp. She said the amount of resources and time devoted to burning crops, arresting low-level traffickers, and trying to disrupt the flow of drugs across borders is part of the problem. "Our judicial system is being distracted by the work it should be doing to investigate and prosecute real crimes – murder, enforced disappearance, extortion." Mexican prisons are full of narcomenudists – low-level street vendors who have faced harsh penalties from a state that has been careful to round up everyone involved in the drug trade. The release of inmates was also a priority as the COVID-19 pandemic devastated prisons around the world.

"Most of them are worth under $ 25 (in jail)," said Snapp.

Withdrawing arrests is also an incomplete solution. López Obrador's softer demeanor over the past year has not mitigated the violence. The last year was the deadliest in Mexico. The slaughter of nine members of a Mormon community in Sonora in 2019 only heightened the feeling of impunity among the cartels. President Donald Trump is now speaking openly about listing the cartels as terrorist organizations.

A woman holds pictures of a missing relative in front of the National Palace during the commemoration of International Day of the Disappeared in Mexico City on August 30, 2019. Tens of thousands of people go missing in Mexico amid years of violence since the government declared war on the country's powerful drug cartels. RODRIGO ARANGUA / AFP via Getty Images

Low-ranking drug dealers are in jail because they are easy to catch. Cartel Assassins and Kingpins are free because they're hard to catch. In fact, in Mexico it is difficult to keep them locked up.

With discipline and time, the direction that López Obrador has taken could prevail.

"We just have to start doing a few of these things well and it will have an impact," said Snapp. Identifying victims found buried in mass graves could be a start to ending the plague of disappearances that is spreading cycles of violence in communities across the country.

Rojas Hernández pointed to reforms already carried out last year to strengthen security and justice systems as evidence that progress is being made.

The hope is that once Mexicans know that their government is capable of a rational, principled and functional system, faith will return. To this end, psychology is perhaps one of the greatest challenges.

"People go crazy here," said Snapp with a laugh.

"Then they cross the California border and drive perfectly."

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