In reto a la juventudAt a residential treatment center in Ciudad Juárez, northern Mexico, Jeanne Chavez described how her drug addiction cost her her job as a maid, her house and her family. The 39-year-old mother of five started using cocaine a decade ago, but things took a turn for the worse when she started using methamphetamine, a powerful stimulant. “It’s hard because everyone is here to take it,” she explained.
Mexico is home to hundreds of gangs that transport illegal drugs north. However, domestic use of such substances has historically been low. That is changing. In Mexico’s latest national survey from 2016, 10 percent of people reported trying illicit drugs at some point in their lives, up from 7 percent in 2011. Synthetic drugs have become more common over the past five years. In 2021, 36% of users in the government treatment center network sought help for methamphetamine addiction, up from 15% in 2016.
Javier González, head of the drug addiction agency in the state of Chihuahua, which is home to Ciudad Juárez, said meth use was doing “terrible damage” to the country. The city has been particularly hard hit due to its location on the border. But the problem is national. In 2020, meth replaced marijuana as the drug most people seek help for, according to the Treatment Centers Network.
The demographics of drug users is also changing. More women are using drugs, and young people are having their first drug experience at an earlier age. Illicit drug consumption among 15-24 year olds has risen during the pandemic.
Analysts attribute the increase in drug use to a decision about a decade ago by the Sinaloa gang, Mexico’s main producer of synthetic drugs, to sell their wares domestically and to traffic them. It is used as a recruitment tool. Synthetic drugs are especially addictive because they are cheap, powerful and addictive. In Ciudad Juárez, a dose of methamphetamine costs eight pesos (40 cents), according to Ms. Chavez. That’s less than a bag of chips or a can of Coke.
The United States and Mexico have made drug use prevention a priority in their bilateral efforts. President Joe Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador discussed it when they met in Washington on July 12. “We are making an important shift towards seeing addiction as a health problem rather than a criminal problem,” said Gady Zabicky of the Mexican government’s addiction agency, which is part of the Ministry of Health.
Some places are changing. A pilot project by Ciudad Juárez sends criminals to a special court that tries to avoid imposing any criminal convictions. Offenders are usually young men caught with small amounts of drugs who agree to treatment in exchange for probation. If they do, they will have no criminal record. The drug courts handled 7,000 cases last year, said magistrate Jorge Ramírez, who is leading the project. The federal government may try to replicate the program.
But despite this, there is little sign of change at the national level. Rebeca Calzada of the United Mexico Against Crime think tank said the government’s ad was rude, suggesting that drugs equaled death and that people should “just say no”. Mexico lacks treatment centers. The ones that exist are often of inferior quality.
The administration has also struggled with another area of drug policy: the legalization of marijuana. Legalizing it would carry the “risk” of “normalizing” the drug, which for many would be the first step down a slippery slope, argues Xochitl Mejia of Tonalli, the capital’s center for treating addicts. But it also helps crack down on drug gang profits. In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that marijuana should not be banned. The government ignored the ruling, so the court changed the law on its own in 2021 to allow people to apply for permission to use it. Such indecision within the administration hardly inspires confidence that Mexico will get its drug policy right.■