Heroin and cocaine now legal in Mexico – in small doses

A controversial new law decriminalising the possession of small amounts of heroin, marijuana, cocaine and other illicit substances was quietly slipped on to the statute books in Mexico yesterday.

The move provoked little fuss either in Mexico itself or across the border in the US, which in the past has resisted anything that might be seen as going soft on drugs.

"This is not legalisation. This is regulating the issue," insisted Bernardo Espino del Castillo, the Attorney General, in an attempt to play down the significance of the new measure. The government made sure there was no fanfare or grand announcement after the law was finally passed at the end of last week.

Mexico is enmeshed in a violent war with drugs cartels and traffickers that has claimed more than 11,000 lives in the past two-and-a-half years, and it is keen to explore any new approach that might ease the situation. Officials believe that the law will ease pressure on the country's overcrowded prisons and allow police to concentrate on dealers and smugglers.

The reform will also help by taking away from ordinary police officers the discretion on whether to arrest and possibly prosecute drug users – a prerogative that has encouraged shakedowns of citizens and corruption.

However, it is also with at least half an eye towards America that the law has been signed. Many in Mexico believe that their northern neighbour would do well to reassess its own ultra-prohibitionist approach to drug use, particularly concerning marijuana, sales of which provide roughly two-thirds of the cartels' profits.

Some US states have indeed moved to decriminalise the possession of small quantities of marijuana but not other drugs. At the same time, arrests for marijuana possession set a new record of about 800,000 last year.

With Barack Obama in the White House, the atmospherics, at least, have been changing. Earlier this year, the US acknowledged for the first time that it shared some of the blame for Mexico's drug problems because it was the main point of consumption. Certainly, it is anxious to see the Mexican President, Felipe Calderon, make headway in his anti-drugs campaign.

Observers also note that when the Mexican Congress approved a similar law several years ago, the then president, Vicente Fox, declined to sign it because of stiff pressure from the Bush administration in Washington. This time around, there was no such intervention from the US, which so far has had little to say about it officially.

Under the new rules there will be no action taken against those carrying up to a half-gramme of cocaine, 40 grammes of marijuana or 50 milligrammes of heroin.

Limits are set for other drugs, including LSD and methamphetamine. People found in possession of these small amounts will be encouraged to attend a drug treatment programme.

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