In the Mexico case, this was not necessarily a policy that we thought of on our own. This plant in particular, in terms of cannabis, has been growing in this territory for the past 500 years. We used to have a not-so-problematic relationship with the plant—we used it for medical, traditional purposes. Why do we have to fight a war that’s so bloody over prohibiting a plant?
That is not to say that we want to abandon any efforts to fight organized crime, but it’s just [telling the Mexican government]: “You’re not focusing on the strong links of organized-crime chains because you’re way too distracted incarcerating people that use drugs and people with low incomes growing illicit crops. So rethink [the relationship] you want to have with both the substance that you want to control and the organized crime that you’re promoting, enabling, or controlling on the other hand.”
We have increased our public budgets for security and law enforcement, and drug enforcement in particular, with absolutely no results other than having this very violent war—not just between the state and the criminal organizations dedicated to drug trafficking, but also among these organizations that are being dismantled. Why keep on distracting all your efforts [by focusing on battling] drugs if violence is now your biggest issue? I mean, when the life expectancy of your [male] population decreases, you know that you’re doing something wrong.
Friedman: Do you apply this logic to all drugs?
Sanchez: We apply it to drug policy in general. So if your main problem is not cannabis, then you should focus on other stuff. We’re not saying that you should legalize all things on a commercial basis, but you should have smart enforcement laws, better-vetted regulations for controlled substances, and in some cases even some legal access to those particular substances. For example: controlling the heroin epidemic. We rather like the model of Switzerland, which at some point provided [heroin] for free in medical facilities. They didn’t necessarily take all of those who were already using heroin out of [the pool of users], but what they prevented was more people [starting to use] it. And I think that’s a better strategy than just prohibiting heroin and then prohibiting all of the substances that could somehow be a substitute for it. But that of course needs to be evaluated case by case, and you also have to be very aware of the institutions you have, the society you have, the resources you have.
Friedman: Is there a country you’d cite as the best example for proving that drug decriminalization or legalization can work?
Sanchez: [In terms of] decriminalization, I would say that the best example is Portugal. We like it a lot, because Portugal is the only country that has had some monitoring and evaluation for the past 10 years, so we know that at least all of these warnings of people saying [if you decriminalize, drug] use will rise, children will use more, prices will fall, availability will increase—that doesn’t happen. At least it hasn’t happened in the case of Portugal, which has been monitoring this for the past 10 years. To the contrary, use has reduced, availability has also reduced, you have [fewer] drugs in the streets.
In terms of legal regulation or legalization, we will have to wait a little bit because I think it’s too soon to evaluate Colorado or Washington, and it’s definitely too soon to evaluate Uruguay. Uruguay hasn’t started to sell cannabis retail in their pharmacies; they will start in July. So you just don’t necessarily know.
This reporting was made possible in part with the support of the Human Rights Foundation.