World News

Mexico seeks to decriminalize small-time drug use

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican President Felipe Calderon, locked in a bloody battle with drug cartels, wants to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of street drugs in a plan likely to irk Washington.

Calderon, a conservative in power nearly two years, sent a proposal to Congress on Thursday that would scrap the penalties for drugs including cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, opium and marijuana.

“What we are seeking is to not treat an addict as a criminal, but rather as a sick person and give them psychological and medical treatment,” said Sen. Alejandro Gonzalez, head of the Senate’s justice committee.

Under Calderon’s plan, people carrying up to 2 grams (0.07 ounces) of marijuana or opium, half a gram of cocaine, 50 milligrams of heroin or 40 milligrams of methamphetamine would face no criminal charges.

It would also give Mexican states the power to try drug dealers in local courts instead of at the federal level.

Reviving a similar effort by his predecessor, Calderon aims to free up police to hunt for dealers and smugglers. But the plan could run into opposition in largely conservative Mexico as well as in the United States.

In a separate proposal, the president asked the Senate to shake up Mexico’s notoriously inept and often corrupt police.

Calderon said poor training and a lack of coordination between forces are hindering efforts to rein in rampant drug violence and organized crime.

“They are at the limit in terms of not sharing intelligence in crime fighting, something which eventually means a lack of organization in the state’s capacity to deal with the crime phenomenon,” he said.

Some analysts say that up to half of Mexico’s police could be in the pay of drug cartels, which offer bribes that dwarf the paltry wages of the average officer.

Former president Vicente Fox introduced a drug decriminalization measure in 2006 but ditched it after Washington objected and critics on both sides of the border said it could lure “drug tourists” from the United States.

Drug use is less common among young people in Mexico than in the United States or Europe. But consumption is creeping up with the growth of the middle class and as tighter border controls mean more cocaine stays in the country.

Calderon has deployed thousands of troops to clamp down on the drug gangs that shuttle Colombian cocaine over Mexico’s northern border. But cartel violence has soared as a result, killing some 3,000 people this year.

Reporting by Miguel Angel Gutierrez; Editing by Xavier Briand