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Mexico explores regulating opium to fight drug violence

  1. perro-salchicha614
    Mexico City- Mexico's government has explored regulating poppy production to make pharmaceutical opiates like morphine in an effort to weaken heroin-smuggling gangs, according to two sources with knowledge of the government's thinking. Amid a government review of drugs policy, Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong asked policy experts late last year whether Mexico could win authorization from the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), a United Nations body, to grow and export opium poppies for painkillers.

    "It's a legitimate question," said one of the sources with direct knowledge of the talks, who was not authorized to speak publicly. "States have to ask themselves questions and have to discuss their policies." It is not clear how seriously the government is considering the regulation of poppy production and it has not yet approached the INCB directly but the discussion illustrates how concerned it is about heroin-related violence. Mexico's interior ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

    On Thursday, Pena Nieto proposed legalizing marijuana-based medicines, substantially raising the amount of pot that users can carry and freeing inmates on minor marijuana charges. With its shift, Mexico has joined a growing group of Latin American countries openly questioning the prohibitionist policies at the heart of the war on drugs. "The terms of the drugs debate are changing in Mexico and the rest of the world," Pena Nieto said.

    Pena Nieto made no mention of poppy regulation on Thursday, but in a speech on drugs at the U.N. General Assembly this week he said, "we should create productive alternatives in those areas where drugs are grown". A heroin epidemic has killed tens of thousands of people in the United States in recent years and led to a surge in demand for Mexican heroin. Regulating poppy production would in theory make it more difficult for Mexico's drug gangs to produce heroin, although some drug experts say Mexico's unique mix of extreme gang violence and weak institutions render the idea a non-starter. More than 100,000 people have died in drug-related violence in Mexico in the last decade.

    Last month, Mexican news magazine Proceso reported on a government study examining the legalization of opium for medicinal uses as a way to lower violence. The governor of the southwestern state of Guerrero, which has been ravaged by drug violence, has also floated the idea.Stefano Berterame, the INCB chief, said Mexico has not made contact over authorizing its opium crop for export, a prerequisite for major pharmaceutical buyers like Johnson & Johnson (JNJ.N).

    He said the INCB would likely refuse any request because there is a global surplus of pharmaceutical opiates, resulting in low prices. The INCB frowns on opiate gluts because they can easily be diverted into the illegal market. Mexico could proceed without the INCB's blessing, as Portugal has previously done, to produce painkillers for its domestic market but it would struggle to offer poppy growers higher prices for their crop than those offered by drug cartels.

    Peter Reuter, a drugs expert at the University of Maryland, said regulation would provide farmers with two markets, one legal and the other illegal, encouraging them to grow even more. There is one precedent that could support the idea. Under pressure from the United States, Turkey managed to destroy its illegal poppy trade in the 1970s by regulating production to make opium-based medicines. "Turkey is indeed the poster child for this kind of policy," said Reuter. "It was a major producer for the illegal market and then converted entirely to the legal market." However, he said Mexico's violent gangs, corrupt police forces and weak judicial system make it more comparable to Afghanistan, where attempts at poppy regulation never got off the ground, than Turkey.

    (Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Simon Gardner and Kieran Murray)
    Reuters 4/22/2016

    Author Bio

    Opium fiend, bon vivant, and all-around pain in the ass.

    Annoying others since 1982.


  1. vervain
    BT2H posted a similar article (focusing more on Guerrero's governor) a couple months ago. My response applies here too:

    "As someone who spends time in Mexico now & then, I can't see this working as-intended in any way shape or form. There are wide swaths of the country - including parts of Guerrero state where this governor is from - that are effectively under cartel control, and where the government cannot/does not provide even basic services let alone has the ability to manage a new market of "legal" opium production. Any initiative like this would simply become another tool of the cartels (and the many politicians and officials in their pockets) in short order."

    Mexico has a loooong way to go before any sanctioned expansion of drug production is a remotely good idea. The fundamental problem isn't even about potentially flooding the black market with opium, it's the fact that it would directly support the criminal organizations that cause untold amounts of misery, effectively hold entire portions of MX hostage, and prevent any substantial reform of the society. It's a really fucked up situation.
  2. AKA_freckles
    I'm just gonna say I think mexico will decriminalize before the US. and then the US will.
  3. perro-salchicha614
    That thought crossed my mind too, vervain. I think that the solution to that problem would be for the Mexican government to either offer poppy farmers subsidies for legal crops or to buy the opium outright at a price above market value in order to make it more profitable to sell to the government than to the cartels. I don't know if this would be economically viable or not for the Mexican government, though.

    Freckles, I agree.
  4. Illdan
    The violence is still going to occur in Mexico regardless. As long as it's illegal in the US, mexican cartels are still gonna have to break the same laws they've always broken just to smuggle the heroin into the country.

    The potential for violence is always gonna be there when prohibition is involved in anything.
  5. Alfa
    What this would do is effectively legalize opium production in Mexico. Which probably does not affect opium production one bit, but it does means that violence becomes a less important factor.

    What the Mexican government should be going for on the long term is to fully legalize all profitable drugs, let legal entities produce & pay taxes on it and build regulatory organizations from the tax income.
    That's likely the most sane way forward.
    1. usedtocare
      god bless portugal
  6. Billy Crystal
    The war on drugs is one of the biggest frauds ever foisted upon the inhabitants of earth. I have a feeling that the powers that be want us all buying Afghan heroin anyways. They invested lots of time and resources into it and 90% of the worlds opium comes from Afghanistan and their opium trade has been booming despite being under u.s military control. They probably will legalize or even eliminate heroin in mexico in an effort to increase the price of street heroin throughout the U.S.

    Thanks for posting this article. It is just a bunch of propaganda in my opinion (and many others). They don't want to put an end to the violence in Mexico. The only people that want to see an end to the violence is your average everyday citizen. Not even the Mexican government want to put a stop to it.
  7. vervain
    Alfa, all that sounds very nice in a theoretical sense (always does!) but it's underselling just how systemic & pervasive cartel control and influence is there, it's woven into the very fabric of political/economic/cultural institutions and life. And as Illdan mentions, Mexico doesn't exist in a vacuum. Criminal organizations will remain ascendant as long as said drugs are being exported to countries that prohibit them.
  8. perro-salchicha614
    That's an interesting perspective. So, you're saying that even if the Mexican government could offer poppy farmers an economic incentive to produce legal crops, the cartels would still retain influence? It seems like drug prohibition is often related to larger systemic problems within a country. For example, corruption and the tenuous rule of law in parts of Mexico or the way that politicians are elected in the US.
  9. tatittle
    It seems to me that almost all of the speculation over what will happen if, e.g. the Gods at the UN allow opium to be produced legally in Mexico, is just that...speculation. Rarely does it even have any significant basis in observed history. And the failures of organizations, bureaucrats, and people in general, to predict the future accurately re: consequences of policies like this is astounding. It is not at all uncommon for the actual effects in the real world to be the exact opposite of what the "experts" predict. And yet people continue to act as if these speculations are objective truths sufficient to base policy and the futures of billions of people on.
  10. tatittle
    That is highly unlikely in my estimation. Mexico is so dependant on the USA they roll the dice on their future going against US will anywhere, perhaps especially with drugs due to public hysteria. From direct aid, to NAFTA, to billions sent back home to families of Mexicans working in the USA, the USA has the power to make Mexico an even scarier place to live merely by taking their ball and going home.

    This proposal isnt legalization in the common sense of the word. This is merely allowing limited production to be sold to manufacturers, to be used for producing pharmacueticals like Rx morphine etc. It would only make opium legal for a handful of companies likely only on their prop'ty and/or in their possesion. If this is all it included it would have little to no impact on the illegal drug markets, especially in the short term. I would welcome it based on speculation it might reduce Mexico's production nominally, bc Columbian herion is far superior.
  11. vervain
    Sure, lacking a crystal ball every single thing we say about the future is speculation. But ideally we can look at dynamics past & present, educate ourselves about the nuances of a given situation, and at least form somewhat informed ideas of the possibilities.

    In this case we have multiple case studies of opium (or insert other major drug commodity here) production/deregulation/etc in a variety of countries with a variety of political situations and infrastructure, from Turkey to Australia to Afghanistan to Portugal to Indonesia. We have a great deal of information (albeit imperfect) about the conditions of organized crime, corruption, politics, and the drug industry in Mexico. We can connect some of the dots there too.

    I'd wager that I have more experience & firsthand knowledge of Mexico, and specifically drugs/politics in Mexico, than the average DFer... possibly significantly so. As such it would take a really really compelling & specifically-reasoned case to convince me that this is anything other than a bad idea at present. If anyone wants to offer it - again, specific to that region and political situation - I'm all ears!

    Unfortunately these topics usually devolve into generalized legalize/don't legalize arguments that are more based in simplified ideology than concrete info. That being said, I think we can all agree that the War On Drugs is total bullshit, no argument there!
  12. perro-salchicha614
    I totally agree with you about the over-simplified drug legalization discussions. They don't tend to accomplish much of anything. What do you think would have to happen for Mexico to consider allowing legal opium production?
  13. Nosferatus
    I think full legalization would be far better, economic protectionism only works for so long, the cartels are so successful only because illegality artificially limits their competition, let them produce and sell whatever they like to whomever they like, just like any other product.
  14. Basoodler
    That would lead to lower prices on drugs overall.. And would probably end much of the cartel drug related violence..

    It would do nothing to help the overall socio-economic situations in places like Mexico or Afghanistan. Those economies would need a system to regulate and create revenue to improve. The root of the problem is the huge gap in wealth and living conditions between nations.. Total legalization would make those places worse.

    Poppies grow just fine in most places.. And Mexico isn't to dope as France is to wine
  15. Nosferatus
    ^^Or it would creat a free market so skilled farmers could choose who to sell to, as I said above, how do you figure it would make poverty worse? Economic protectionism actually hurts producers long term.
  16. Basoodler
    Supply and demand man.. It will be cheaper to grow these plants domestically and not import them. This isnt rocket science.

    Free markets have in fact had a somewhat positive impact for struggling economies via trade deals in the past, but a lot of those gains have been tainted with a heavy dose of exploitation.

    There is a reason that the USA's political campaigns are pounding the anti-free trade drums right now... Free is not always fair..they lost jobs to fund currupt governments who exploit their people.

    Farming poppies is not same type of business as say electronics assembly or manufacturing. You can't undercut pricing or wages as much because farming takes fewer people and more time.

    You also can't go and disrupt the world economy all at once.. It just won't happen
  17. Nosferatus
    ^^What do you mean disrupt the world economy?

    As for growing plants domestically, that could already be legally done in most countries, illegal plants can be produced for legitimate medical use, it's still more feasible to produce it in some places than others. Also, trade deals are antithetical to a free market.
  18. Basoodler
    I've been to both Mexico and Afghanistan... Neither is a better place to grow anything ...lol (geographically, climate, natural resources etc.)
  19. Nosferatus
    ^^Right, the advantage is cheap labour and local expertise, those are still major advantages.
  20. vervain
    There are a few points to consider about Mexico specifically.

    First, as I said before the cartels are institutionalized & endemic at the local, state/regional, and federal levels of government and business, including even the army. Politicians or civil workers or policy makers who are *not* at least tolerant if not somehow actively involved in cartel business are the exception, and in many areas it's a requirement for one's political career, or literal survival. There is plenty of data & info out there attesting to the level of this. It's even common in police forces, the army, and other enforcement arms for personnel to wholesale defect explicitly and join the drug trade. Los Zetas cartel was formed completely from former Mexican Special Forces commandos for example, who decided the grass was literally greener on the other side. They are politically connected, technologically advanced, and armed with military-grade weaponry - the usual stereotypes of organized crime don't apply in Mexico, it's almost a state-within-a-state type thing. I invite anyone to read up on this, there's tons of info out there and it's quite interesting (and depressing).

    As such, any "legal" opium production will still be controlled by the cartels, guaranteed.

    Secondly, their drug market is almost exclusively export based. Mexicans actually use recreational drugs at a far lesser rate than the USA, Canada, Europe, etc, and it's the markets in those countries that keep them in business. The border trade to the USA is well-known of course. They also have staging networks in West Africa as an entry point into the European market. In recent years a combination of growing wealth in Asia combined with recent trade agreements (i.e. less border controls) has resulting in them entering markets across the Pacific (the profit margins there are huge). It's an international business and they're extremely adaptable.

    The result being that any recreational drugs produced in Mexico (legally or otherwise) will enter the black market because said drugs are regulated in those other countries.

    So de-regulating opium production in Mexico will essentially make life easier for the most powerful crime organization the world has possibly ever seen, increase their profit margins, and allow them to focus more personnel on expanding their markets overseas. Again, I just can't get behind this, partly because I spend time in Mexico and have seen what kind of misery and insecurity they create among everyday people, so it's a little personal for me rather than just the theoretical/ideological thing it might be for some others.

    It's all well & good to say "Well just legalize opium in Europe, the USA, Asia, etc, problem solved", but again that's just an ideological exercise, not a realistic one at the moment.

    Will say however, that the gradual legalization of cannabis in the USA has absolutely hit the cartels' marijuana profits, which is awesome. Of course they just adapt to other products - Mexican meth is booming, heroin/opiate production is increasing, etc. Personally though I'm 100% for cannabis legalization, I have mixed feelings about the same for stuff like opiates, methamphetamine, etc, due to their particular properties. I know for some the one-size-fits-all legalization is the way to go prohibition-wise, for me it just feels a lot more complicated than that. Like many things in life.

    That's my take anyhow. Mexico is a beautiful place with amazing people & culture, the conundrum they find themselves in is really sad and there are no easy fixes.
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