Pubdate: Mon, 4 May 2009
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2009 Los Angeles Times
Author: Isaac Campos
Note: 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.


In the Face of a Crisis in Drug-Related Violence, Mexico Should 
Reconsider Its Policy Criminalizing Marijuana.

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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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake