MEXICO CITY – 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 today.
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 reconsideration.
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 LSD.
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.
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.