A recent court ruling in Mexico didn’t get much news coverage here, but it may signal profound changes in the war on drugs.

The case was brought in Mexico City by a group called Mexico United Against Crime (MUCD) on behalf of two individuals who want to use cocaine for recreational purposes. The group’s director, Lisa María Sánchez, said: “Our objective with this and other cases has been to foster public discussion about drugs. Current drug policy is a failure in all respects."

Judge Víctor Octavio Luna agreed that the legal prohibition of cocaine violates the constitutional right to “free development of personality.”

However, he attached a range of conditions to his authorization for the plaintiffs to use cocaine:

  • Consumption is limited to 500 milligrams per day;
  • The users must not drive vehicles, operate machinery or engage in employment while under the influence of the drug;
  • They are prohibited from using cocaine in public places or in the presence of minors; and
  • They must not attempt to induce others to consume the drug.
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The judge ruled that cocaine can be used for a variety of reasons including “tension relief, the intensification of perceptions, and the desire to have new personal and spiritual experiences.” His ruling is backed by a report from the National Commission Against Addictions that says that cocaine consumption doesn’t pose a “significant risk to health."

In the U.S., there have been significant steps in the same direction. Seattle, for example, is pioneering a bold approach to narcotics that writer Nicholas Kristof says “should be a model for America."

The county attorney, Dan Satterberg, has started a program called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD). Anyone caught with a small amount of drugs — even heroin — isn’t typically prosecuted. Instead, that person is steered toward social services to get help.

LEAD isn’t cheap. It costs about $350 per month per participant to provide case managers. But it is cheaper than jail, courts and costs associated with homelessness. Other cities are watching — 59 localities are now offering LEAD initiatives or rolling them out. Kristof’s article is “Seattle Has Figured Out How to End the War On Drugs.”

In Oregon last month, Gov. Kate Brown signed a bill into law that downgrades first-time simple drug possession offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. The law applies to people found with cocaine or methamphetamine under 2 grams; heroin under 1 gram; oxycodone under 40 pills; ecstasy under 1 gram or under five pills; and LSD under 40 units.

Portugal went even further back in 2001 by decriminalizing possession of all drugs and treating possession as a health issue, not a crime. Drug use did not go up, and overdose deaths went way down. Drug mortality rates in the U.S. are now about 50 times higher than in Portugal.

In fact, the Global Commission on Drug Policy states that “to criminalize people who use drugs is ineffective and harmful.”

As Kristof puts it, the war on drugs “has cost the economy trillions, ruined tens of millions of lives, ruptured the family structure, exacerbated racial inequities — yet we still have a fatal overdose every seven minutes in the United States.”

The ACLU reports that “on any given day, at least 137,000 men and women are behind bars in the United States for drug possession.”

Drug decriminalization has been endorsed by the United Nations, World Health Organization, American Public Health Association, ACLU and NAACP. Let’s talk about it.

James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate and was named one of Minnesota’s Top Ten Attorneys. He now handles family law, wills and probate in the Lake County area, and does mediation everywhere. He writes a regular column on legal issues for the News-Chronicle. He can be reached at jamesmanahan36@gmail.com or jamesmanahan.com.