Political leaders from Mexico’s main heroin-producing state are pushing the federal government to legalize opium production for pharmaceutical use in a move they hope will reduce violence and help local farmers.
Legislators in Guerrero state voted Friday to send an initiative to the Mexican Senate for further debate, since the proposal to legitimize opium output would require changes to federal health and penal codes.
Incoming Interior Minister Olga Sanchez has expressed support for nationwide legalization of opium production for medical purposes after President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador takes office in December, reports the Miami Herald.
The mountainous state of Guerrero, on Mexico’s southern Pacific Coast, is home to most of the poppy bulbs that yield heroin consumed in the U.S.
Guerrero state legislator Ricardo Mejia said an estimated 120,000 people cultivate poppy in poor, isolated communities across the state. A legal channel to sell sticky poppy sap could offer growers more stable incomes, he argues.
The United Nations estimates that Mexico has the world’s third-largest geographic area dedicated to illicit opium cultivation, after top producer Afghanistan and Myanmar. Yet prescription opioids are severely restricted for cancer patients and the terminally ill in Mexico.
“We propose a paradigm change,” Mejia said.
Criminal groups control access to the poppy fields tucked high in the rugged Sierra Madre mountains of Guerrero, more than five hours by car along bumpy dirt roads from the state capital of Chilpancingo or the nearby beach resort of Acapulco. Subsistence farmers have been pressured under threat of violence in recent decades to grow poppy rather than crops like coffee or mangoes.
Mejia considers the forced production of poppy a form of slavery.
“They can recover their freedom via the legal cultivation of poppy,” he said. “Right now the criminal groups have a social base because they control the only economic activity of the people.”
Guerrero Gov. Hector Astudillo first floated the idea of decriminalizing poppy in 2016 to combat the state’s rampant drug gang violence. Guerrero has one of the highest murder rates in Mexico, with 71 homicides per 100,000 residents last year.
The lush green hills of Guerrero are ideal for poppies. Mountains shield the delicate plant from strong winds, while high elevations and an arid climate prevent moisture from sucking away its precious sap. At harvest, growers slice the bulbs, releasing sap with a high morphine content. The sap forms a paste that is then scraped off and sent for processing in clandestine labs.
But this lucrative industry is under threat. Guerrero state security spokesman Roberto Alvarez says increased use in the U.S. of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl has caused prices for Mexican opium paste on the black market to plummet to as little as $263 per kilo from more than $1,000 per kilo a year ago.
Criminal groups have compensated for the lost revenue by ramping up extortions, vehicle thefts and kidnappings in Guerrero, while subsistence farmers struggle to make ends meet.
“The growers are in a crisis situation,” Alvarez said. “Opium used to be a very good income — enough to buy a TV or a little car and to get by. Now it’s not viable.”
As we previously reported, Mexican President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has given his future interior minister “carte blanche” to explore the possibility of legalizing drugs in a bid to curb violent crime.
Olga Sanchez Cordero, a former Supreme Court judge tapped to lead the interior ministry, drew applause when she made the comment at a university seminar on addressing brutal violence fueled by Mexico’s drug cartels, the biggest suppliers to US consumers of cocaine, heroin and other narcotics.
It was one of her first public events since Lopez Obrador, a leftist widely known as “AMLO,” won a landslide victory in Mexico’s July 1 election with a promise of sweeping change in a country fed up with crime and corruption.
“On the subject of decriminalizing drugs, Andres Manuel told me, and I quote: ‘Carte blanche. Whatever is necessary to restore peace in this country. Let’s open up the debate,'” said Sanchez Cordero.
The future interior minister said she also plans to propose a bill in Congress — where Lopez Obrador’s coalition won a majority in both houses — for a “transitional justice system,” reports DW.
It would include reduced sentences for criminals who help shed light on unsolved crimes, such as the tens of thousands of missing persons cases in Mexico; truth commissions similar to those used in post-conflict situations; special investigative commissions; and a reparations program for victims.
It would also include Lopez Obrador’s controversial proposal for an amnesty for some drug crimes, said Sanchez Cordero, who is 71.
Lopez Obrador has notably invited Pope Francis to participate in a national dialogue on the amnesty proposal. One of his advisers said Saturday that the pope had accepted — only for the Vatican to deny it Monday.
Sanchez Cordero said the invitation would in fact only be made formally after Lopez Obrador takes office on December 1.
Since Mexico deployed its army to fight drug trafficking in 2006, the country has been engulfed in a wave of violence that has left more than 200,000 murders.
“A transitional justice system for Mexico is possible and urgent, not just for the victims of the violence but for all of Mexican society,” said Sanchez Cordero.
James E Windsor, Overpasses News Desk
August 19th, 2018