Mexico and Argentina Move to Decriminalize Marijuana and Other Drugs

09/26/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the last week both Mexico and Argentina made international news by passing a law and making a major Supreme Court ruling calling for low-level drug offenders to receive treatment instead of jail.

On Friday Mexico decriminalized small amounts of drugs including heroin, cocaine and marijuana. The new law removes criminal penalties for possession of drugs considered to be for personal use -- up to five grams of marijuana (roughly three to five joints) and half a gram of cocaine, (equivalent of three to eight "lines"). The law will offer treatment instead of incarceration for people caught with small amounts of drugs for personal use. A similar decriminalization bill passed Mexico's Congress in 2006 but the Fox administration decided not to sign it, reportedly because of pressure from the United States.

"This new law is a step in the right direction toward removing criminal penalties for people who possess small amounts of drugs for their own use," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "But Mexican authorities need to avoid the temptation to arrest even more people for other low level drug offenses -- a possibility that this law allows. Mexico is trying to make smarter choices on law enforcement priorities; it's time for the United States to do the same."

Yesterday, Argentina also made news when its Supreme Court ruled out prison for marijuana possession, saying the government should go after major traffickers and provide treatment instead of jail for consumers of marijuana. Ruling in a case involving several young men caught with marijuana cigarettes in their pockets, the judges struck down a law providing for up to two years in prison for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Although the Court Order was about marijuana, most of the arguments can be made about other illicit drugs and may open the door to larger drug law reform in Argentina. While the vast majority of people who get busted with small amounts of marijuana don't need treatment, they certainly don't need a jail cell.

Argentinean President Cristina Fernandez has supported certain drug law changes, saying in July 2008, ''I don't like that an addict is condemned as if he were a criminal. The ones who need to be punished are those who sell the drug.''

"Mexico's new law to decriminalize personal possession of illicit drugs and the ruling out of Argentina yesterday are consistent with the broader trend throughout Western Europe, Canada and other parts of Latin America to stop treating drug use and possession as a criminal problem," commented Nadelmann. "But it contrasts sharply with the United States, where marijuana possession arrests top 870,000 annually -- and now represent nearly half of all drug arrests nationwide."

Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance