Mexico’s drug violence has gotten so bad that one governor wants to legalize opium

Legitimate agriculture?
Legitimate agriculture?
Image: AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills, File
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The governor of a Mexican state plagued by drug violence has suggested a new approach to the problem: legalizing medicinal opium.

Hector Astudillo, governor of Guerrero, said in an interview with Milenio (link in Spanish) that violence will continue in his state so long as it remains one of the region’s main producers of heroin.

“Let’s try a pilot program,” the governor said. Instead of trying to stamp out illicit opium cultivation, he called for allowing farmers to grow opium poppies for medicinal opium—”an exit that could help us distance ourselves from violence.”

Allowing farmers to grow and sell opium products could take a bite out of the cartels’ profits—in the same way that legal weed has. But Astudillo’s plan is still far-fetched—and unlikely to be passed in Mexico (the governor did not specify whether he was working on an official proposal).

Medicinal opium production was allowed for under the UN Single Convention on Drug Narcotics of 1961, but today, only a handful of countries work with the UN to legally grow opium poppies or manufacture opioids. And opium, even in the form of legal painkillers, still poses a public health risk. In the US, a deadly prescription drug epidemic has taken off, and troublingly, a recent survey found that 75% of heroin addicts had tried prescription opioids before turning to heroin, the New York Times reported (paywall).

But Astudillo’s suggestion speaks to the obstacles he must overcome in his state. Guerrero was ranked Mexico’s most homicidal state (pdf, page 8) from 2012 to 2014. In September of 2014, 43 students disappeared from the town of Ayotzinapa and were never found. Astudillo, who came into office the following month after a campaign promising “peace and order,” said change would not be immediate. And indeed, in his first 100 days in office, 734 homicides were reportedly committed (link in Spanish).

Drug violence remains rampant throughout Mexico. Homicides across the nation rose in 2015 for the first time since 2011 (paywall) and gang violence has taken over rural towns—even as the Mexican government targets powerful drug cartel leaders (paywall) such as “El Chapo.” To address the problem, state and federal leaders have been considering other options, including legalizing marijuana in the country, a measure that the Supreme Court has already cleared the way for.

Guerrero is also one of the largest heroin suppliers to the US. As the demand for the drug grows across the border, local farmers are increasing their operations in Guerrero, sometimes recruiting children to help in the fields.

Astudillo’s suggestion is far from a fully-formed policy proposal: he did not go into detail about how such a program would work, and acknowledged it would mean more responsibilities for the state government. Rather, the governor’s suggestion speaks to how desperate he (and other officials) must feel against muscular drug networks and a complicit government—a combination that analysts say allows drug violence to flourish in poor communities.

The idea to legalize medicinal opium is just that for now—an idea. But it will certainly take more than one state adopting a radical new policy for Mexico’s drug violence to end.