Mexico legislators consider regulating marijuana to protect human rights

Zara Snapp
Monday, July 14, 2014

In Mexico, since 2006 a public security strategy has been implemented based on militarization, which has prioritized the use of force – including lethal force – based on the presumption of national security above principles of the safety of citizens. Involvement of armed forces as the central axis for Mexico’s security strategy has sparked serious concerns, particularly pertaining to obligations regarding human rights.

The so-called “war on drug trafficking” has taken a toll of at least 100,000 people killed and more than 25,000 missing, according to official figures, cases of torture have increased 500%, as well as the displacement of 250,000 others.

Prohibitive and repressive drug policies haven’t produced the expected results, according to the United Nations, and to the contrary have had damaging effects that infringe upon the human rights of millions of people, and even risk the essence of the rule of law. Facing a situation that worsens by the day, with rising costs in human life as well as social costs, it has become crucial that the current strategy of the “war on drugs” used over the last fifty years throughout the region be changed, and that another paradigm be propelled, centered around a focus on health and respect for human rights. This change has been promoted by human rights organizations, doctors, ex-presidents, prime ministers, and high-ranking officials globally as well as in Mexico.

Confronting drug consumption through militarization, law enforcement, and the use of force hasn’t shown results, and it’s equally necessary to implement education and health policies based on prevention and scientific information. It’s crucial to recognize that the negative impact we’ve experienced hasn’t been caused by drug consumption, but rather by the punitive approach, the lack of access to health services, and the militarization that has been implemented. Anti-drug policies shouldn’t cause more harm than the use of these substances.

Taking this into account, from a human rights perspective the reform of drug policy is pressing in order to fight the root of militarization. The justification for militarizing the country would be turned on its head if the market were regulated and controlled by the government. In stead of the efforts put forth to confront drug trafficking head-on, our government could focus on higher-impact crimes such as kidnapping, extortion, and homicide. For this reason, it is important to support the proposals currently being discussed in the legislative bodies in Mexico.

Over the past months, Mexico has been having an intense debate among legislators, academics, and the civil society over a highly controversial theme: cannabis. For a large part of citizens the propositions at the local and national level aren’t very clear. What’s out there in the media talks about the possible legalization of marijuana, or questions like “whether the corner store will sell it”. Here we will decipher the local and federal responsibilities and the numerous propositions floating around the Legislative Assembly of the Federal District [Mexico City], the Chamber of Deputies of Congress, and the Senate of the Republic.

We can begin with the changes proposed at the federal level by Senator Mario Delgado in the Senate, and Representative Fernando Belaunzaran in the ]Chamber of Deputies. While there are differences in the two iniciatives primarily regarding whether or not the regulation should be at local or federal discretion, both open up the possibility to important alternatives:

  • Reform the General Health Law (article 479) to increase the maximum amount for personal consumption. Currently the maximum is 5 grams of cannabis and the law proposes to increase it to 30 grams.

  • Currently sanitation and cultivation regulation is exclusively in the hands of the federal government. The initiative put forth by the Chamber of Deputies and Senate proposes that states as well as the Federal District have “control over the sanitation of the process, cultivation and distribution of the substance”, giving them autonomy over their own drug policy. The proposal in the Chamber of Deputies asks for a General Law for the Regulation of Cannabis that could regulate production, processing, distribution, sale, and consumption of products derived from cannabis.

  • Cannabis is on List 1 of the General Health Law (article 245) which determines that the plant doesn’t have any use for medical purposes. The initiative proposes to change marijuana from List 1 to List 3 to recognize it’s therapeutic uses. This new classification would result in the recognition of possible regulation of medical uses for marijuana.

  • The federal initiative proposes to decriminalize prescriptions for marijuana for medical use with changes to the federal penal code. This would be a fundamental change to open up the possibility of cultivating it for medical purposes.

The proposal in the Legislative Assembly of the Federal District is more restricted because the responsibility for cultivating and regulation of sanitation is in the hands of the federal government. Legislators and the technical work group did everything possible to avoid any legal problems, and instead of challenging the reach of the federal government and likely end up in court, they tried to agree on certain terms. The legislators are still debating how marijuana should be regulated, but for now the proposal is made up of three main facets:

  • Consumption of cannabis would be decriminalized and the authorities could not detain people that carry less than five grams. If a person has between five and thirty grams, they could be cited and have to appear before a dissuasion commission, and for carrying more than 30 grams they could be prosecuted within the legal system.

  • The Institute of Treatment and Prevention of Addiction (IAPA) will be in charge of forming committees for treatment, and that would be where users would be referred for carrying less than 30 grams of marijuana.

  • IAPA would also be mandated to coordinate an information system for reducing risks and damages in the Supply and Use of Unlawful Psychoactive Substances (SIRe) that would guarantee the right to information on marijuana. Compliance with this mandate would be overseen by a council made up of academics, authorities, and citizens.

This law attempts to encourage a culture of tolerance, where drug users wouldn’t be treated as criminals. They are people with rights that should be respected, and in their case possession fits within the category of personal consumption. Legislators that propose change at the federal level work to shift the paradigm and give autonomy to states so that they can propose initiatives autonomously, and thus guarantee the rights of consumers.

Regulation of marijuana is just a step in the long path towards protecting human rights and peace. Nevertheless, it’s an important step. While we create a state of law, it’s essential to start with laws that reflect our reality, not ideologies founded in dogma and stigmatization. In Mexico the prohibition of drugs is justified with the argument that institutions aren’t prepared to regulate these substances, but Mexico regulates thousands of products every day without any problem. Additionally, it’s extremely important to do it in a way that is well thought out, predictable and controlled. After all, what’s better: a market regulated by the government, where there is accountability, transparency, and a dialogue between consumer and seller, or a market regulated by organized crime, where sales are secured by violence, where producers are exploited and consumers have to venture to dangerous places to get the product?

The protection of human rights begins with putting the individual at the center of policy that is implemented. The regulation of substances implies that the state also must provide quality, voluntary treatment for everyone, and create a space where users with addiction problems can go and get help through its institutions. It’s necessary to reiterate that not all users of substances are problematic or have issues with addiction. According to studies, less than 10% of marijuana consumers suffer from problematic use that affects their professional and personal lives. That means that there are 90% of consumers that don’t use in a problematic way, and are productive in society.

We need to stop the hysteria associated with marijuana. There are already enough studies that support medical use and that don’t speak to only the risks but also to the benefits. Instead of scaring people, it would be better to inform them in an honest, coherent, and effective way. This can only happen with realistic education on substances. Let’s leave behind the hysteria, stigmatization, and militarization, and construct an informed society that can make decisions based on evidence, not belief. The rights of everyone depend on us working to change the paradigm.

*Zara Snapp is director of the Incidents Area of CMDPDH and a consultant on drug policy. @zarasnapp This blog was originally published on Mexico Voice (Spanish original)