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Is Mexico Decriminalizing Drugs or Stepping up Incarcerations?

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In August, the Mexican government decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, cocaine and other drugs.  Several other Latin American countries have also done the same recently.

Some people argue that Latin America’s move to emphasize treating drug addiction as a medical condition rather than a criminal act will force the United States to change its own policies towards drugs. This is why we should pay attention to what is happening south of the border.

That and the mounting death toll that is accumulating along our southern border because of the U.S.’ insatiable desire for drugs.

Oh, and don’t forget the gazillion people who are in jail for drug use.

I’ll admit I haven’t read Mexico’s decriminalization legislation. I’ve only had time to read media reports on the new law. I’ve heard different takes on the decriminalization: one is that the new law will emphasize treatment over incarceration, which sounds like a progressive and good thing. The other take is that the term decriminalization is actually a misnomer. Instead, Mexico’s new law is a step toward mandatory sentencing.

Eric Sterling, from the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, pointed this out in an email the other day. He wrote:

“Actually Mexico’s “decriminalization” bill contains mandatory minimum sentences of four years for “small dealers;”  a mandatory three years to possess with intent to distribute; and a mandatory seven years for other offenses. The reforms provide that anyone in possession of the small amounts will be arrested and presented to the local prosecutor who will determine if the possession was for personal consumption, or trafficking. The abuse of process potential is substantial. “

The New York Times has a forum posted on its Web site debating Mexico’s decriminalization law and what impact it might have on the United States.  It’s a good read for anyone interested in our own country doing something about our dysfunctional drug policies.

There’s a Texan in the mix too. Dr. Tony Payan, a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso is a participant in the forum. Payan is one of the organizers of the upcoming global forum on U.S. Drug War policy happening at UTEP this month. We need to do something about our failed drug policies. Until we do, the violence in Mexico and along the border won’t stop.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.