By Ann Deslandes
The mountains of the Mexican state of Guerrero are dotted with opium poppies, a staple crop for many local farmers. Much of their harvest ends up as heroin, which has placed them square in the middle of the violence associated with rival drug trafficking syndicates. In 2017, Guerrero saw 2,318 homicides involving narcotraffickers fighting for control of the territory. This year is well on track to exceed that number.
The violence comes despite attempts by the national army to crack down on poppy crops, root out drug cartels, and round up criminals—policies that have been widely recognized as missteps. Speaking in Mexico in September as part of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, once a firm proponent of the war on drugs, urged contemporary lawmakers to “give the benefit of the doubt to those of us who have followed the wrong policy for so many years.” And Mexico’s incoming president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, said in his victory speech that the drug war was a “failed crime and violence strategy.”
Guerrero’s state legislature agrees. As an alternative to the policy of the last few years, lawmakers there have called on the national government to legalize the production of opium for pharmaceutical use. The State’s governor, Héctor Astudillo, has led the charge. López Obrador’s incoming interior minister, Olga Sánchez, seems to be on board, and the president-elect has said that he won’t rule it out.
The basic idea behind the plan is that decriminalization will provide an official route for farmers to produce and sell opium poppies. The legal market should cut the drug traffickers out of the picture, weaken them, and reduce conflict. There is some evidence that such measures could work. As the Council on Foreign Relations has observed, legalization of marijuana in some U.S. jurisdictions diminished cartel profits. And in Portugal, the number of overdoses from heroin was initially reduced by a whopping 85 percent after that drug was legalized. How similar rules would play out in Mexico, though, where cartel violence is extreme, is less clear. At the very least, there’s no doubt that legalizing poppy production would reduce its value to traffickers.