Last week Mexico decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, LSD, and methamphetamine, creating one of the most liberal drug policy environments in the world, the Wall Street Journal reported. The new approach comes in the midst of the country’s fight against large drug cartels, and prosecutors suggest that by taking the focus off of small-time users, this policy will allow Mexican law enforcement to focus their efforts against large-scale dealers instead.
This decision comes after the War on Drugs, led by the United States, has failed for decades and some say that Mexican law enforcement is losing the battle with drug cartels. However, the decision to decriminalize drug possession does not necessarily mark a departure from the War on Drugs. The New York Times reports:
The battle against the drug cartels, which has resulted in more than 11,000 deaths since [Mexican president Felipe] Calderón took office in December 2006, will continue unabated, officials insist. Revising drug possession laws, in fact, will help focus the drug war more effectively, they say.
The article says that some Mexican lawmakers have suggested that instead of merely decriminalizing small quantities, legalizing marijuana would provide a better solution, ending the struggle between law enforcement and the drug cartels that traffic marijuana.
Activist groups in the United States such as the Marijuana Policy Project advocate a similar position. Those who assert that the War on Drugs is an unworkable policy agenda argue that criminalizing drugs will never eliminate the supply or demand of illicit drugs. They believe that by ending the federal attempt to fight drug use, resources could be directed toward helping addicts rather than prosecuting and imprisoning drug users and dealers.
Another argument against the drug war is that it is an unconstitutional abuse of interstate commerce clause of the 10th Amendment. Marijuana became illegal in the United States under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, marking a departure from the previously upheld notion that a constitutional Amendment would be required to ban drugs, such as the 18th Amendment which marked the prohibition of alcohol. Without such an amendment, some argue that drug law enforcement should be left to the states.
It does not appear that drug decriminalization will be pursued by the current administration; however, President Obama has ended the federal raids of medical marijuana dispensaries that were carried out under the Bush administration. This marks an improvement in the constitutional rights of the citizenry of individual states to determine their own drug policies. Furthermore, Attorney General Eric Holder said that federal efforts to prosecute drug law violators who violate both state and federal laws, giving states an increased incentive to pursue individualized policies.
This week, the Argentinian Supreme Court ruled that prosecuting people for possessing small quantities of marijuana is unconstitutional, and some government officials in Brazil and Ecuador suggest that their countries may liberalize their marijuana policies as well. These institutional shifts offer an opportunity to observe drug decriminalization in action. Will the new legal environment help reduce the country’s drug-related violence, or will it simply increase the number of addicts?
This international experiment offers an opportunity for policy makers to observe the changes in behavior that different policies incentivize, and could lead to results that will suggest appropriate approaches for U.S. lawmakers to take toward drugs. By further decentralizing drug laws domestically, the United States could become a country where people have an option to live in states where policies are in line with their beliefs, potentially reversing the wasteful and unsuccessful War on Drugs.