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Mexico to decriminalize pot, cocaine and heroin

Noel Randewich, Reuters, 29th April 2006

Possessing marijuana, cocaine and even heroin will no longer be a crime in Mexico if they are in small amounts for personal use under new reforms passed by Congress that quickly drew U.S. criticism.

The measure given final passage 53-26 by senators in a late night session on Thursday is aimed at letting police focus on their battle against major drug dealers, and President Vicente Fox is expected to sign it into law.

"This law provides more judicial tools for authorities to fight crime," presidential spokesman Ruben Aguilar said on Friday.

He said the reforms, which were proposed by the government and approved earlier this week by the lower house of Congress, made laws against major traffickers "more severe."

The legislation came as a shock to Washington, which counts on Mexico's support in its war against drug smuggling gangs who move massive quantities of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamines through Mexico to U.S. consumers.

"I would say any law that decriminalizes dangerous drugs is not very helpful," said Judith Bryan, spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. "Drugs are dangerous. We don't think it is the appropriate way to go."

She said U.S. officials were still studying the reforms, under which police will not penalize people for possessing up to 5 grams of marijuana, 5 grams of opium, 25 milligrams of heroin or 500 milligrams of cocaine.

People caught with larger quantities of drugs will be treated as narcotics dealers and face increased jail terms under the plan.

The legal changes will also decriminalize the possession of limited quantities of other drugs, including LSD, hallucinogenic mushrooms, amphetamines and peyote -- a psychotropic cactus found in Mexico's northern deserts.

Fox has been seen as a loyal ally of the United States in the war on drugs, but the reforms could create new tensions.

A delegation from the U.S. House of Representatives visited Mexico last week and met with senior officials to discuss drug control issues, but was told nothing of the planned legislative changes, said Michelle Gress, a House subcommittee counsel who was part of the visiting team. "We were not informed," she said.

HARDENED CRIMINALS
Hundreds of people, including many police officers, have been killed in Mexico in the past year as drug cartels battle for control of lucrative smuggling routes into the United States.

The violence has raged mostly in northern Mexico but in recent months has spread south to cities like vacation resort Acapulco.

Under current law, it is up to local judges and police to decide on a case-by-case basis whether people should be prosecuted for possessing small quantities of drugs, a source at the Senate's health commission told Reuters.

"The object of this law is to not put consumers in jail, but rather those who sell and poison," said Senator Jorge Zermeno of the ruling National Action Party.

Hector Michel Camarena, an opposition senator from the Institutional Revolutionary Party, warned that although well intentioned, the law may go too far.

"There are serious questions we have to carefully analyse so that through our spirit of fighting drug dealing, we don't end up legalizing," he said. "We have to get rid of the concept of the (drug) consumer."

(Additional reporting by Anahi Rama)

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