June 26, 2012
UNAM, the National University in Mexico City was host at their Faculty of Medicine a few blocks from the Zocalo in late April 2012 to an international group of activists, lawyers, physicians, epidemiologists, criminal justice specialists and academic scholars from a variety of other disciplines to sit together for a week and address drug policy for the Mexican Government.
While Mexico is deeply involved in a highly visible war with the narco-warlords who control the transit of drugs from South America to the United States it is also considering along with its Latin American neighbors the policy implications of its own approach to drug use within its borders. The fact is it has a very low incidence of drug use throughout the country compared to the United States for example, a tenth of the incidence of drug uptake. While we sat in the beautiful conference room and listened to the speakers from the UN to the British Commonwealth countries, Mexican leaders in drug treatment and policy and other experts it was strikingly clear that Mexico’s drug problem was almost non-existent compared to Europe, the United States and other hotspots of drug use in Iran, Russia and parts of Asia. The fear of the Mexican Ministry of Health is that secondary to a fallout from the narco-trafficking there will develop a secondary “local” market or “narco-menudeo” for drugs as the cartels continue to splinter into smaller groups and seek local populations as preferred markets. We discussed and debated the issues all day and late into the evenings since it is unclear where the narco-insurgency is leading as the Mexican Presidential election approaches in just a few days.
What was evident from all of the discusssions both formal and informal was a chastening take-home message from all of the speakers from around the globe with a collective experience measured in centuries under a bewildering array of circumstances. It was summed up in the final document shared with the group by the Rector of UNAM Dr. José Narro Robles. He summarized that it was critical to distinguish between the effects of the drugs themselves and the “effects arising from the public policies on drugs that are taken.” That important take home message resonated throughout the five day conference.
The dominant policy approach to drug behavior for many decades has been a punitive “punishment” attitude that has been enshrined in United Nations policies, enforced by United States influence on the governing body located in Geneva using sanctions against countries considering alternatives. What has emerged is the era in the United States of mass incarceration. It has created its own set of social problems that will resonate for generations and take decades to undo. The rest of the world has undertaken similar pathways of punishment first, a one size fits all policy to complex social issues with some bold and hopeful experiments such as in Portugal. The risk is that unwilling countries may be forced to participate in failed policies with important consequences for their populations.
It reminded me of the Colonel in the US Army regarding counter-insurgency during the Vietnam War. “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” Lets hope that Mexico and its brethren Latin American countries have the political will and fortitude to reject the policies that have caused such social damage in our own society.