Challenges of Mexico’s drug legalisation

Challenges of Mexico’s drug legalisation

Mexican President-elect Obrador has declared his intention to combat drug cartels with a bold strategy – decriminalization of opium and marijuana. But while this policy may hurt the cartels, it is not likely to destroy them, and faces significant opposition both at home and abroad.

“You can’t fight violence with more violence”. That was the answer of Mexico’s future President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) when he was asked about the strategy of the use of force against narco-traffickers. The newly elected president, who will take power on the 1st of December of this year, believes in a different approach than his predecessor, and his rivals in the Presidential campaign. He claims that the prohibition of certain substances stimulates black markets upon which the cartels thrive. “There are people who believe that that is why we have violence. Because of prohibition. Alcohol and tobacco affect health more than the use of certain drugs, and prohibiting them, unleashes more violence” he said, during the forum “Diálogo por la Paz y la Justicia”, before the elections were held.

This is not the first time that Mexico’s administration has flirted with the idea of decriminalising drugs, such as cannabis and opiates, as a way to reduce violence. In 2015, the Government of President Enrique Peña Nieto consulted with international experts from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) about the issue. After debating, it was discarded due to lack of institutional strength, and previous failed experiences in Afghanistan. Yet this time, the situation is different.

On the 1st of August of this year, the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation endorsed a change of legislation of the medicinal use of cannabis, within the Constitution of Mexico City. This is the fourth endorsement for the legalisation of cannabis for medicinal purposes, self-consumption and self-cultivation in Jalisco and Guadalajara, in the state of Guerrero. The first three endorsements were emitted by the First Chamber and the last one by the Second Chamber. Five endorsements from the same Chamber are needed to start the legislative process, but judging from the institutional support, we can foresee that it will not be long until more endorsements are emitted.

A huge blow to narcos’ pockets

The change in the legislation on drugs is promoted by future Secretary of Governance, Olga Sanchez, in order to “pacify” the country. She believes that “drugs should not be in the hands of mafias, but in the hands of the State, so that the cartels lose their market and are forced to regulate their activity”. Without money, everything is difficult, especially organised crime.

Opium gum and cannabis had a value of 18.000 pesos (about 956 dollars) and 7.000 pesos (about 372 dollars) per kilo respectively last year in Mexico, and in the global market, an annual value that ranged between 65 and 50 billion dollars per year according to the Mexican online Journal ‘el’. The trade of opium and cannabis is concentrated in certain areas of the country. Most of them are located in the Tierra Caliente region, in the state of Guerrero, in Central Mexico, where 49% of the opiates exported each year to the US market come from. This area is one of the most violent in the country, often hit by Cartel Wars between the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, the Caballeros Templarios and the Michoacana Family. All these groups fight for the monopoly of production and distribution of these substances and benefit from illicit international markets.

Territory of Mexican cartel influence. Map by Stratfor.

Territory of Mexican cartel influence. Map by Stratfor.

However, opium and cannabis decriminalisation would establish not only freedom to harvest, but also for distribution and commercialisation by the Mexican State, which would mean a significant loss of income for narco-traffickers.

Civil and international opposition

While decriminalisation might have positive effects on the level of violence in Mexico, some important civil society actors have already stated their disapproval. On the 1st of August, the National Union of Family Parents (UNPF), the National Association of Private Education Institutions, the Teachers Alliance and the Citizens Coordinator drafted a petition against legalising marijuana, “because it would bring big social consequences and a bigger number of users, also kids and youngsters”. These are the most vulnerable groups, as different studies by the Faculty of Medicine of the National Autonomous University of Mexico show that the harm of the use of drugs among minors causes irreversible damage and proneness to addiction.

Moreover, the different groups have already expressed doubt about the approach of the next administration, claiming that when disputing the gains of narco-traffickers, there will be retaliation and an increase of violent confrontation between cartels and the government.

For Washington, the legalisation of drugs in Mexico will not diminish the homicide rate but will actually aggravate the situation and increase the number of drugs crossing into the US. “We would not support the legalisation of all drugs anywhere, and we certainly would not want to do anything that could allow more drugs to enter our country”, said White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders at a press release.

Possible outcomes

Yet, however risky this change of legislation might be, something needs to be done. In 2017, the Mexican homicide rate reached its highest level in a decade, reaching 25 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography. In turn, the civil organisation Semáforo Delictivo indicated that the vast majority of murders in Mexico are linked to organized crime and especially drug trafficking and have increased 28% in the first half of 2018. The ‘hard approach’ that President Enrique Peña Nieto promoted in his administration did not been effectively tackled insecurity in Mexico, and the population knows it.

A change in rules of the game would be positive for both sides. It would give the cartels a the chance to become productive private companies through amnesties for producers. For its part, the state would benefit from the reduction in violence and in earning revenue from the commercialisation of certain drugs.

Yet, there is the possibility that narco-traffickers operate in both markets, legal and illegal, simultaneously, given the high profitability of their crops in the black markets. Moreover, narco-traffickers have moved to be less dependent upon drugs, and have already started to move into the illegal robbery and resale of gasoline even while searching for other markets from which to make a profit.

The proposed drug legalization is doubtlessly one of the biggest challenges that AMLO’s administration will face. The legalisation of opium and marijuana would be the first step towards less violence in the country, but narco-traffickers will not leave without a fight. It will be interesting to see how López Obrador will tackle this on his agenda, as a change of legislation will not be a ‘silver bullet’.

Categories: Latin America, Politics

About Author

Tomas Slangen Velasco

Tomas Slangen Velasco holds an undergraduate in International Relations from the Blanquerna School of Communications and International Relations, in Barcelona. Moreover, he holds a Master of Arts in International Conflict and Security from the University of Kent’s Brussels School of International Studies. He specializes in Latin America and spent a year living in Argentina and studying regional political and security issues.