Crime and Violence · Transparency & accountability

Mexico’s Supreme Court endorses new narcomenudeo law, U.S. cautiously optimistic

In a 6-5 decision, Mexico’s Supreme Court has implicitly endorsed the law signed last month by President Calderón to decriminalize the possession of amounts of illicit drugs deemed for personal use. In the case in question, the Court ruled that the 2007 arrest of a man in possession of a small amount of cocaine was unconstitutional, thus posthumously striking down article 199 of the federal penal code, in accord with the so-called narcomenudeolaw. The move by the Court echoed a similar ruling by Argentina’s Supreme Court last month, which ruled that it is unconstitutional to incarcerate an individual for marijuana possession.

Decriminalizing the possession of small quantities of drugs is a growing trend in Latin America as part of a movement to treat drug addiction as a public health rather than a public security issue. By means of the new narcomenudeolaw, Mexico moved to revamp its minor possession laws (dating back to 1978) to establish new regulations for minor possession of a wide array of drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and LSD. This trend toward decriminalization —eliminating jail time and reducing fines associated with personal consumption of illicit drugs— has also been prevalent in different U.S. states in recent years.

Decriminalization is deemed to have two main advantages. First, it theoretically allows beleaguered law enforcement agencies to concentrate their time and resources on larger dealers and trafficking operations (though opponents object that it also increases other illegal activities). Second, decriminalization eliminates opportunities for police to harass and extort drug users, and thereby may increase addicts’ opportunities to receive treatment for their addiction without legal penalties.  In this sense, proponents see the decriminalization of drugs as an important step toward treating drug abuse as more of a public health problem than a public security problem.

However, Mexico’s recent legislation does not provide significantly greater support for the treatment of addicts. Moreover, as long as the production and distribution of drugs remains illegal, decriminalization may make law enforcement’s job more difficult by expanding the market share of the criminal organizations that purvey and profit from illicit drugs. As a drug control strategy, decriminalization therefore faces critics on both sides: those who view decriminalization as inciting greater illicit drug use, and those who see it as an inadequate substitute for full-scale legalization.

On September 21-22, the University of Texas-El Paso hosted a major conference adjacent to the troubled Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárezto build support re-evaluate U.S. policies on the war on drugs, with many advocating legalization. Conference participants included Ciudad Juárez Mayor José Reyes and El Paso Mayor John Cook and most of the city council that earlier this year voted down a controversial resolution advocating a public debate on U.S. drug policy. Reyes noted the hypocrisy and negative consequences of U.S. drug policy for Mexico, stating: “The day that your police chief is killed, the U.S. government says it will not prosecute a drug user like Michael Phelps; this sends a message that drug consumption in the United States is OK, but drug flows from Mexico are not.”

Also participating was retired federal agent Terry Nelson, head of a group called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, who spoke against current policy: “We’ve had 40 years of failure with our policies. Drug use does not cause crime. It is prohibition of drugs that causes crime.” He estimated that U.S. anti-drug efforts stop less than 85% of the 2.1 million pounds of drugs flowing into the United States each year.

Conference organizers expressed disappointment that two top U.S. federal officials —border “czar” Alan Bersin and drug “czar” Gil Kerlikowske— backed out of earlier commitments to participate in the conference.However, Kerlikowske has viewedMexico’s new decriminalization law with cautious optimism, characterizing it as a “tool” in the struggle against drug cartelssince it will free up law enforcement resources to address larger players in the drug trade. Before his appointment as the Director of the Office of Drug Control Policy Kerlikowske served as chief of police for Seattle, where he oversaw the de-prioritization of marijuana possession for personal use. Earlier this month, Bersinaddressed the issue of drugs in a speech at the Trans-Border Institute in San Diego, praising President Calderón’s efforts to get tough on organized crime and noting that a reversal of current U.S. drug policy would be a significant defeat.

Overall, the response by the Obama administration to Mexico’s new law marks a drastic change of tone from the previous administration, which three years ago pressured then-president Vicente Fox to veto a similar bill passed by the Mexican congress.


Emmott, Robin. “Entrevista – Leynarcomenudeo México, ayuda contra cárteles: EEUU.” Reuters September 4, 2009.

AvilésAllende, Carlos. “Adictos son enfermos, no criminales: Corte.” El Universal September 18, 2009.

David Crowder and Elizabeth Ruiz, “Two Obama czars opt out of drug war forum,”, September 20, 2009.

Ramon Bracamontes, “Mayor: U.S. Drug Policies Need to Change,” El Paso Times, September 22, 2009.

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