Pubdate: Wed, 04 Nov 2015
Source: Alaska Dispatch News (AK)
Copyright: 2015 Alaska Dispatch Publishing
Note: Anchorage Daily News until July '14
Authors: Elisabeth Malkin and Azam Ahmed, The New York Times


The Mexican Supreme Court opened the door to legalizing marijuana on 
Wednesday, delivering a pointed challenge to the nation's strict 
substance abuse laws and adding its weight to the growing debate in 
Latin America over the costs and consequences of the war against drugs.

The vote by the court's criminal chamber declared that individuals 
should have the right to grow and distribute marijuana for their 
personal use. While the ruling does not strike down current drug 
laws, it lays the groundwork for a wave of legal actions that could 
ultimately rewrite them, proponents of legalization say.

The decision reflects a changing dynamic in Mexico, where for decades 
the U.S.-backed war on drugs has produced much upheaval but few 
lasting victories. Today, the flow of drugs to the United States 
continues, along with the political corruption it fuels in Mexico. 
The country, dispirited by the ceaseless fight with traffickers, 
remains engulfed in violence.

"It's the drama behind all of our efforts," said Juan Francisco 
Torres Landa, a corporate lawyer who was one of the plaintiffs in the 
Supreme Court case.

With little to show after years of tough-on-crime policies, countries 
in the Western Hemisphere have enacted laws allowing some marijuana use.

Uruguay, Chile and more than 20 states in the U.S. have passed laws 
allowing medical or recreational use.

The rate of marijuana use in Mexico is low, and most Mexicans oppose 
legalization. The U.S. is the main market for marijuana grown there.

The trade is controlled by violent criminal gangs who also make money 
from other drugs, kidnapping and extortion.

Experts say legalizing marijuana would do little to diminish their power.

The marijuana case has ignited a debate about the effectiveness of 
imprisoning drug users, in a country with some of the most 
conservative drug laws in Latin America. But across the region, a 
growing number of voices are questioning Washington's strategy in the 
drug war. With little to show for tough-on-crime policies, the 
balance appears to be slowly shifting toward other approaches.

Uruguay enacted a law in 2013 to legalize marijuana, although the 
creation of a legal marijuana industry in the small country has 
unfolded slowly. Chile gathered its first harvest of medical 
marijuana this year. In Brazil, the Supreme Court recently debated 
the decriminalization of marijuana, cocaine and other drugs. Bolivia 
allows traditional uses of coca, the plant used to make cocaine, 
while in the northern part of the hemisphere, Canada's new prime 
minister has pledged in the past to legalize marijuana.

Many leaders in Latin America have called for a shift in the war on 
drugs, including President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia. In May, 
his government ordering a halt to the aerial spraying of illegal coca 
fields, rejecting a major tool in the U.S.-backed anti-drug campaign 
because of concerns that the herbicide spray causes cancer.

Although Santos is one of Washington's closest allies in the region, 
he has pointed out the incongruity of jailing poor farmers for 
growing marijuana while it is slowly being decriminalized in the United States.

Mexicans seeking a new strategy have also been struck by the situation.

"We are killing ourselves to stop the production of something that is 
heading to the U.S., where it's legal," said Armando Santacruz, 
another plaintiff in the case.

Still, few think that legalizing marijuana will significantly reduce 
drug violence or weaken the gangs. Although the rising production of 
higher-quality marijuana in the United States reduces demand for 
Mexican imports, experts say that Mexican gangs continue to account 
for an important percentage of the American supply.

"It's clearly a significant part of the business," said Peter Reuter, 
an expert on the global drug war at the University of Maryland and a 
senior economist at the RAND Corp. "It's enough to fight about."

Marijuana is just one of many sources of income for the gangs, which 
smuggle drugs across the border to the United States and run 
kidnapping and extortion rings at home. The criminal infrastructure 
will persist whether or not marijuana use is legal.

But for critics of the current laws, that is hardly a reason to 
continue to criminalize marijuana use.

"The existing laws don't reduce violence, either," said Catalina 
Perez Correa Gonzalez, a law professor at CIDE, a university in Mexico City.

The legal ruling on Wednesday barely referred to the bloody backdrop 
of the drug war. Instead, Justice Arturo Zaldivar wrote an 88-page 
opinion based on principles of human rights, arguing that the state 
recognizes an individual's autonomy to engage in recreational 
activities that do not harm others.

The number of marijuana users in Mexico is believed to be small. One 
2011 drug use survey estimated that just 2 percent of Mexicans had 
smoked marijuana in the past year. Although that figure is probably 
low, it is a smaller percentage than the 7.5 percent of people in the 
United States who said in a 2013 survey that they had used marijuana 
in the previous month.

If Mexicans are allowed to grow and consume their own marijuana, 
casual users will not have to commit a crime to obtain the drug. 
Marijuana users are currently vulnerable to extortion by the police 
and are locked up by the thousands every year on charges of 
consumption and possession.

"There is an enormous institutional and social cost to enforcing the 
laws against marijuana," said Perez Correa, whose surveys of state 
and federal prisons suggest that 60 percent of the inmates sentenced 
for drug crimes were convicted in cases involving marijuana. "How 
many resources are being used up to reduce these low-impact crimes?"

Torres Landa, one of the plaintiffs, put it more bluntly: "We want to 
force Congress to pursue kidnapping, murderers, rapists and other criminals."

The ruling Wednesday was the culmination of an effort to change the 
law by four members of a prominent Mexican anti-crime group, Mexico 
United Against Crime.

Torres Landa and Santacruz formed a cannabis club with two other 
people, called the Mexican Society for Responsible and Tolerant 
Consumption - the Spanish acronym is SMART.

The group applied for a license from Mexico's drug regulatory agency, 
but, as expected, was turned down. Their appeal of that decision 
eventually reached the Supreme Court.

"We have been trying to struggle against illegality, and the results 
were almost negligible," said Torres Landa, who says he has never 
tried marijuana and does not intend to. "Five or six years ago, we 
asked why? The answer, as the Americans say, was in the money."

But the ruling Wednesday applies only to their petition. For legal 
marijuana to become the law of the land, the justices in the court's 
criminal chamber will have to rule the same way five times, or eight 
of the 11 members of the full court will have to vote in favor.

If the court decisions continue in that direction, they will be 
flying in the face of public opinion. Mexicans are so opposed to 
legalizing marijuana that a leading pollster told the SMART group not 
to bother with a survey, Santacruz recalled, or to limit it to young people.

The Mexican government, legislators and security and health officials 
all came out against legalization, as did the Roman Catholic Church. 
Indeed, the authorities have not permitted even the use of medical marijuana.

But Santacruz is determined to change people's minds.

Invoking the specter of Mexico's most notorious drug kingpin, Joaquin 
Guzman Loera, known as El Chapo, Santacruz likes to remind people: 
"Bad regulation is better than whatever regulation El Chapo and the 
narcos can provide."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom