When one domino falls, it’s only a matter of time before the next one goes, too.
Marijuana is now legal and regulated in Uruguay, a small South American nation known for its unusually secular politics and its experiments with liberal policy. But that giant step toward reform, which lawmakers there took last year, may be only the beginning.
In February, legislators in Mexico City are expected to take up a bill that would decriminalize possession of up to 40 grams of marijuana within the so-called Federal District, which includes the city, the largest in North America.
Though the move wouldn’t go nearly as far as Uruguay’s – it wouldn’t legalize the actual cultivation and sale of the drug – it would be yet another sign among countless others that a tidal wave of drug reform is sweeping the Western Hemisphere.
The proposed policy would do exactly what a number of cities in the United States have already done by labeling pot a “zero priority” and telling police to leave users alone. That would lift penalties on nearly 85,000 residents who toke up in Mexico City.
Results of zero-priority policies in the United States have been mixed, with some police departments vowing to continue targeting weed smokers. But generally, the approach does seem to lead to less or even no enforcement, since cops know the people they’re protecting officially disapprove of arrests and fines for tokers.
But the stakes are much different in Mexico than they are here. For one thing, the country suffers from endemic police corruption, and getting busted for a pot offense is typically an expensive proposition when necessary bribes are factored in.
According to a 2013 report by the Collective for an Integral Drug Policy, a think tank based in Mexico City, two thirds of all marijuana users reported having to bribe cops to avoid arrest.
For another thing, Mexico has long been at bloody war with drug cartels, much of whose business is in the marijuana trade. Policy after policy for reducing the violence has failed, and the situation has worsened dramatically in recent years, spilling across the border into the United States.
Graco Ramírez, governor of the Morelos state just to the south of Mexico City, has seen his region hit especially hard by drug violence.
“Decriminalizing marijuana would be a very important change of strategy for lowering the level of violence that exists because it is associated with illegal trafficking,” Ramírez said last year.
But removing penalties is just the first step. Weed proponents are pushing for a broader policy of legalization and regulation, just as they did to great success in Uruguay. Whether they succeed will depend in large part on the reaction of the country and its president, Enrique Peña Nieto.
If Federal State lawmakers decriminalize, and eventually legalize, Nieto could try to stop them, though experts say that’s unlikely. Unless, that is, the population turns against the program. Most of them already oppose legalization, at least until pollsters provide more information.
But the same was true in Uruguay, and that country has so far reported few problems with legal weed. The people have not revolted. The United Nations has not sent in peacekeeping forces to crush the cannabis market. Narco-terrorists have not seized the reins of power.
So Mexico could very well be the next nation in the Americas to see the light, do the right thing and legalize.