Connect to share and comment

“Legalize it” lobby gains strength across Americas

Mexico and other Latin American countries are moving toward drug decriminalization — and Washington isn't complaining.

A woman shows her nails decorated with marijuana leafs and images of narco patron saint Jesus Malverde in the northwestern city of Culiacan, May 14, 2008. (Mica Rosenberg/Reuters)

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — After carefully packing light green Mexican marijuana into a homemade water pipe, university student Salvador Chavez drew a deep breath from the tube and blew the smoke out of the window of his modest family home.

“I don’t care if the neighbors call the police on me. They can’t arrest me for this anymore,” he said behind lightly glazed eyes. “But then police here never cared much about a bit of marijuana anyway. Everything has just stayed the same really.”

Almost two months after Mexico decriminalized the possession of small amounts all major narcotics — including marijuana, cocaine and heroin — the most notable thing is how little has changed.

Drug users and addicts still smoke, snort and inject quietly in their homes; drug dealers are still regularly arrested in stash houses and on street corners; and major cartels carry on battling police to smuggle huge loads to the United States.

But while the law has yet to have a measurable impact on the Mexican streets, it has sent waves across the Americas to groups campaigning to change drug laws in their own countries.

Shortly after Mexico enacted its decriminalization act on Aug. 20, the Supreme Court of Argentina ruled that it was unconstitutional to punish people for personal consumption of marijuana.

“The state cannot establish morality,” Argentine Supreme Court President Ricardo Lorenzetti said following that ruling.

The Argentine Congress is now looking to change its laws accordingly.

Then weeks later in Colombia, the Supreme Court also ruled that people could not be prosecuted for possession of narcotics for personal use, resisting pressure from conservative President Alvaro Uribe to lock up drug users.

“Real change is happening. More and more people over the world are taking a more rational view on drugs,” said Maria Lucia Karam, a retired judge in Brazil who is part of the pro-legalization group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

“People are understanding that the prohibition of drugs does more damage than the actual drugs themselves,” she said.

A similar court ruling to that of Colombia and Argentina may soon be passed in Brazil, Karam said.

Latin American legalization advocates have been particularly encouraged by the muted United States reaction to the Mexican law.