We interviewed Zara Snapp, a leading expert on drug policy reform in Latin-America, about the chances of making a long term peace in the war on drugs in her home country, Mexico.
Drugreporter: On July 4, the Supreme Court of Justice of Mexico approved your motion to acquire seeds to cultivate cannabis for personal use. How do you feel after this decision?
Zara Snapp: We are very happy with the decision of the court, and pleased that they strengthened the arguments posed in previous Supreme Court cases. I am one of three plaintiffs in the case and we were surprised that they unanimously approved the resolution, since we were expecting at least one minister to vote against it since they tend to be more conservative. We hope this will bring us one step closer to dismantling prohibition in Mexico and constructing a vision based on human rights, development, and peace! We are excited about all that comes next!
Can you tell us about your background: how and why did you start working in the drug policy reform movement?
When I was a teenager, most of my friends either used and/or sold illegal drugs. I saw that those that had contact with the criminal justice system were much worse off than those that were able to avoid it. And while some of them developed problematic drug use, those that had strong support systems and opportunities to advance educationally or professionally were often able to overcome the problems generated by their consumption. At the time, I worked in teen pregnancy and HIV prevention, promoting harm reduction within that sphere.
I didn’t get involved in the drug policy reform movement until I was living in Mexico City and was offered a job with Students for Sensible Drug Policy as their international director. I had witnessed how the 2006 militarisation in Mexico changed everyday life in a substantially negative way. I knew there had to be a better way to address these issues. I became involved in the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity which convinced me of the need to include reparations in whatever regulatory model we propose.
I only stayed a short time with SSDP, but through that work I was able to meet amazing leaders of the movement, such as Donald MacPherson, the folks at TNI, DPA, and IDPC. They, along with many others, inspired me to continue in this movement, from a perspective deeply grounded in respect for human rights, in that responsible use is possible, and that peace is achievable.
After several years at the Global Commission, preparing for UNGASS, I have now founded my own organisation, Instituto RIA, and together with my co-founder, Jorge, we do advocacy and research, while elevating the innovative work that we see in Latin America. I can’t imagine working in any other field. My heart (and my head) are here to stay!
As far as I know, Mexico decriminalised cannabis in 2009 and in 2015 there was another ruling of the Supreme Court which granted permission to four people to grow cannabis for personal use. So what is the relevance of this current ruling, how did it move things further?
In 2009, Mexico decriminalised cannabis and all other drugs, however the thresholds they established are ridiculously low (5 grams for cannabis). This ineffective decriminalisation has not had a positive impact on most people who use illegal drugs in Mexico. On the contrary, it opens up the possibility of daily corruption on the part of police officers – we see the law being applied in a discretional and discriminatory fashion.
The SMART case in 2015 set the precedent for strategic litigation in Mexico. Following that case, the same law firm offered to take on the cases of several of us in order to create jurisprudence. In order to achieve jurisprudence in Mexico, you need the Supreme Court to rule on five consecutive cases, in the same court, using the same reasoning and arguments. We now have three cases in the First Court, and my case is the first case in the Second Court. Once there are a total of five cases, the Ministers could take it to the plenary and vote to create jurisprudence or they could wait until there are five cases in the First or Second Court. The previous three cases had determined that the plaintiffs had the constitutional right to cultivate cannabis for personal use under the free development of personality. The court had not ruled on how those plaintiffs would acquire the seeds in order to cultivate and thus supply their personal use.
Our case determines that the regulatory body (COFEPRIS) must import the seeds for us to be able to cultivate. This, along with deepening the legal literature, is the advance made by our case. Additionally, the Ministers signalled that legislators need to come up with the public policy to regulate cannabis in Mexico.
How did the media react to this decision? Is there popular support for drug law reform?
Since this tends to be a controversial issue, the media likes reporting on it. Across the intellectual and academic elite, there is consensus that we need drug policy reform and in the last few years we have noted that public opinion is turning in our favour.
I think we’ll see a generational shift towards supporting drug policy reform, and as policies begin to take shape and are implemented, I hope that we can see positive results that will show that regulation does less harm than prohibition.
Mexico elected a new president recently and he has plans to reduce organised crime and corruption. Do we know how his drug policy will look?
This is an exciting time to be working on these issues in Mexico! The future Minister of the Interior has come out strongly in support of regulating cannabis production, distribution, and sale for personal use and has also highlighted the need to regulate poppy cultivation for medicinal use. She has proposed these reforms within a context of transitional justice, and has included early release for nonviolent offenders, as well as an amnesty law in order to lead us towards truth, justice, reconciliation, and peace.
At this point, we are hopeful about a complete shift in the strategy and in the paradigm. Rather than focusing on war, they are looking towards bringing peace to Mexico. With the devastating human rights violations and humanitarian crisis we have experienced, we are ready for a change and civil society is ready to work with the government to implement these reforms.
I suppose there are some powerful lobbies in Mexico to push back reforms, do you expect a fight?
We always expect a fight. There are so many interests in maintaining prohibition, as well as fear around what would happen if we dismantled the status quo. We often get the most pushback from those that work in the medical field, so we need to reach out to them in order to have an open dialogue.
It is our work to speak with people about what harm reduction and responsible regulation look like, and although we might not be able to convince everyone, we know we are on the right side of history in our goals of building societies that are more just, open, and equitable.
Poverty and social exclusion is an often overlooked side of drug problems. Do you think that criminal justice reform can be successful without social and health reforms?
I think they need to go hand in hand. Social inequality has been a highly important issue here in Latin America and we see drug policy reform as being a means to address it. Producing countries need to take advantage of the market that already exists and formalise these markets in order to provide increased opportunities to those communities. The president elect has a strong mandate to reduce poverty and we think regulation through a social justice framework can be part of confronting social exclusion.
We live in a world increasingly ruled by illiberal authoritarian leaders such as Trump, Erdogan, or Orban. Should we change our methods of advocacy in this new global political environment?
I think our advocacy is turning towards building an intersectional movement. It serves the interests of these authoritarian leaders to cause social movements to fragment. Our work should focus on uniting social justice movements, such as the feminist movement, sacred plants movement, environmental movement, etc in order to recognise that the structural issues are impacting all of us. And while I will not be an expert on all issues, I can support the struggle and vice versa. I am deeply in favour of using international networks, social networks, and local action as a means of demonstrating the strength that we have as a progressive, diverse social movement.
Interview by Peter Sarosi
Photo: Mario Hernandez