Mexicans continue to consume illegal drugs

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men reto a la juventud, a residential treatment center in Ciudad Juárez, in northern Mexico, Jenny Chávez describes how she lost her job as a maid, her house and her family. The 39-year-old mother of five started taking cocaine ten years ago, but it was after she switched to methamphetamine, or meth, a strong stimulant, that things began to unravel. “It’s hard because everyone brings it around here,” she explained.

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Mexico is home to hundreds of gangs that deliver illegal drugs to the north. However, historically, domestic use of such materials has been low. That is changing. Mexico’s most recent national survey, from 2016, shows that 10% of people reported having tried an illegal substance in their lifetime, up from 7% in 2011. Synthetic drugs in particular have become more common over the past five years. In 2021 36% of clients at a government network of treatment centers sought help for meth addiction, compared to 15% in 2016.

Meth use is doing “terrible damage” to the country, says Javier González, who heads the addiction agency of Chihuahua state, home to Ciudad Juárez. That city is particularly affected because of its location on the border. But the problem is national. According to data from the network of treatment centers, meth overtook marijuana in 2020 as the drug with which most people sought help.

The demographics of drug users are also changing. More women are taking drugs, and young people are having their first experience at an earlier age. During the pandemic illicit drug use among 15-24 year olds rose.

Analysts trace the increase in drug use to a decision about ten years ago by the Sinaloa cartel, which is Mexico’s main producer of synthetic drugs, to sell its products domestically as well as the traffic. It works as a recruiting tool. The low price of synthetic drugs, as well as their potency and addiction, make it particularly easy to get people hooked on them. According to Ms. Chávez, a dose of meth costs eight pesos (40 cents) in Ciudad Juárez. That’s less than a bag of crisps or a can of Coke.

The United States and Mexico have focused bilateral efforts to curb drug use. President Joe Biden and Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the president of Mexico, discussed this when they met in Washington on July 12. “We are making an important transition to treat addiction as a health problem rather than a problem,” said Gady Zabicky from the Mexican government’s addiction agency, part of the health ministry.

In a few places there is a change going on. A pilot project in Ciudad Juárez sends criminals to a special court that tries to avoid any criminal conviction. The offenders, often young men who have been found with small amounts of drugs on them, agree to undergo treatment in exchange for a suspended sentence. If they complete it, they will have no criminal record. Jorge Ramírez, the magistrate in charge of the project, says that the drug courts dealt with 7,000 cases last year. The federal government may try to copy the project.

But despite this there is little sign of change at the national level. The government’s ads are misguided, says Rebeca Calzada of Mexicans United Against Crime, a think tank, suggesting that drugs are equivalent to death and that people should “just say no”. There are no treatment centers in Mexico. Those who are are often rude.

The government is also involved in another area of ​​drug policy: legalizing cannabis. Legalizing it “risks normalizing” the drug which is the first step down a slippery slope for many people, says Xochitl Mejia from Tonalli, a center that treats addicts in the capital city. But it would also help combat the profits made by drug gangs. In 2018 the Supreme Court decided that cannabis should not be banned. The government ignored the ruling, so in 2021 the court itself changed the law to allow people to apply for licenses to use it. Such uncertainty within the government hardly inspires confidence that Mexico will get its drug policy right.

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