It is a crisp morning in November of 2000, on the outskirts of the capital city. A man sits on the side of the road with a needle in his hand. Several individuals nearby make their home on the street. Some lay unconscious on the cold ground, some prepare to inject themselves with drugs, and still others wait for the droves of customers to pour into the area for their supply. It is an area characterized by rampant drug use, crime, and disease. Many of the people wandering these streets are infected with HIV, hepatitis, or tuberculosis. Rundown shacks and used needles evince the extreme poverty, social exclusion, and drug addiction that have become the norm here. Located on the fringe of Lisbon, Portugal, this place is called Casal Ventoso, and is notorious throughout Europe for being the continent's largest open-air drug market. Here, one could purchase illegal drugs as easily as one might draw a breath, and could contract a disease with hardly more effort. The needle in the hand of the man on the street contains a dose of heroin, the predominant drug of use in the area. Looking around at this slum, one cannot help but wonder if the novel drug laws that take effect in July 2001 will provide any hope for this ravaged region.
Nearly a decade later, across the Atlantic Ocean, a similar scene has developed. On a blistering summer day in the heart of a major tourist city, addicts search for their drug of choice. A man sits on the sidewalk and injects himself with a needle that may be filled with any of a number of substance - heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine have all become common among drug-using populations in this area. Just as in Casal Ventoso, poverty and disease have become prevalent. Illicit drugs can be readily purchased from what have become known as "ice cream trucks." Roving the main streets of the town in broad daylight, these vehicles provide a constant supply of nearly any drug a customer could want.
Yet there is more to the story here, in the northern Mexican town of Tijuana. Violence plagues the area and fear grips the citizens. Drug-trafficking organizations battle both each other and the government in their struggle to transport and sell drugs to their number one customer, the United States, and increasingly to domestic consumers. This phenomenon has spread to several areas throughout the country. Midday firefights have become a common phenomenon in many Mexican towns. Amid the addiction, disease, and violence, a shift in drug policy in 2009 seeks to eliminate the source of these ills for the citizens of these towns.
In an effort to confront their escalating drug crises, both Portugal and Mexico determined that decriminalizing the possession of drugs would help to alleviate the problems in areas like Casal Ventoso and Tijuana. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized possession of all drugs for personal consumption and has since reported positive results in combating drug addiction, related health problems, and drug trafficking. Then, in 2009, Mexico became the most recent country to participate in this trend, occurring primarily in Latin America and Europe, to ease drug policies, when it passed a bill decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs. Although both Portugal and Mexico decided to explore drug decriminalization, as a result of their divergent drug legislation, the systems in each country are remarkably different. Thus far, Mexico's decriminalization scheme has not seen many, if any, of the positive effects witnessed in Portugal.
Although it is too soon to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the outcomes of the decriminalization scheme in Mexico, this Note argues that Mexico's 2009 law decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs will not be able to achieve the same positive results as the Portuguese law. By increasing penalties for small-scale dealers, only referring offenders to treatment after a third offense, and continuing to process offenders through the court system, the Mexican law focuses too much on criminal justice, at the expense of a more thorough public health approach. As a result, Mexican decriminalization fails to improve the ability of the government to address effectively drug use, drug-related disease, mortality, and the rights of the drug user. Though the current conflict in Mexico between law enforcement and drug-trafficking organizations creates a somewhat different landscape than the one in which Portugal enacted its decriminalization law, Mexico could nevertheless use Portugal's regime as a guide in developing a more public health-oriented approach to its drug problem. In doing so, Mexico would be able to enjoy reductions in many of the social ills that Portugal is currently experiencing.
The Devil (and Drugs) in the Details: Portugal's Focus on Public Health as a Model for Decriminalization of Drugs in Mexico,
Yale J. Health Pol'y L. & Ethics
Available at: https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yjhple/vol12/iss2/4