Mexico Decriminalizes Small-Scale Drug Possession

Mexico enacted a controversial law Thursday decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and other drugs while encouraging free government treatment for drug dependency.

The law sets out maximum "personal use" amounts for drugs,
also including LSD and methamphetamine. People detained with those
quantities will no longer face criminal prosecution when the law
goes into effect Friday.

Anyone caught with drug amounts under the personal-use limit
will be encouraged to seek treatment, and for those caught a third
time treatment is mandatory - although the law does not specify
penalties for noncompliance.

Mexican authorities said the change just recognized the
long-standing practice here of not prosecuting people caught with
small amounts of drugs that they could reasonably claim were for
personal use, while setting rules and limits.

Under previous law, possession of any amount of drugs was
punishable by stiff jail sentences, but there was leeway for
addicts caught with smaller amounts. In practice, nobody was
prosecuted and sentenced to jail for small-time possession, said
Bernardo Espino del Castillo, the coordinator of state offices for
the attorney general's office.

"We couldn't charge somebody who was in possession of a dose of
a drug, there was no way ... because the person would claim they
were an addict," he added.

"This person obviously couldn't be charged, not yesterday, not
the day before, not a year ago, but the bad thing was that it was
left up to the discretion of the detective, and it could open the
door to corruption or extortion."

In the past, police sometimes hauled suspects to police stations
and demanded bribes, threatening long jail sentences if people did
not pay.

"This is not legalization, this is regulating the issue and
giving citizens greater legal certainty ... for a practice that was
already in place," Espino del Castillo said.

In 2006, the U.S. government publicly criticized a similar bill.
Then President Vicente Fox sent that law - which did not have a
mandatory treatment provision - back to Congress for

The maximum amount of marijuana considered to be for "personal
use" under the new law is 5 grams - the equivalent of about four
joints. The limit is a half gram for cocaine, the equivalent of
about 4 "lines." For other drugs, the limits are 50 milligrams of
heroin, 40 milligrams for methamphetamine and 0.015 milligrams for

The law was approved by Congress before it recessed in late
April, and President Felipe Calderon, who is leading a major
offensive against drug cartels, waited most of the summer before
enacting it.

Calderon's original proposal would have required first-time
detainees to complete treatment or face jail time. But the lower
house of Congress, where Calderon's party was short of a majority,
weakened the bill.

Mexico has emphasized the need to differentiate drug addicts and
casual users from the violent traffickers whose turf battles have
contributed to the deaths of more than 11,000 people during
Calderon's term. In the face of growing domestic drug use, Mexico
has increased its focus on prevention and drug treatment.

Sen. Pablo Gomez of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party
praised the legislation: "This law achieves the decriminalization
of drugs, and in exchange offers government recovery treatment for

Previously, possession of any amount of drugs was punishable by
stiff jail sentences, with some leeway for those considered addicts
and caught with smaller amounts. But in practice, relatively few
people were prosecuted and sentenced to jail for small-time

While the United States openly expressed concern about the 2006
law, this time around it has been more circumspect.
Asked about the new law in July, U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske
said he would adopt a "wait-and-see attitude."

"If the sanction becomes completely nonexistent I think that
would be a concern, but I actually didn't read quite that level of
de facto (decriminalization) in the law," said Kerlikowske, who
heads the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy.

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