Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Smile, it's Cannabis Camera: Mexico City Residents Questioned About Marijuana Use

Imagine the improbable scene: off camera a young woman places a microphone to the faces of couples and individuals who appear to be enjoying a lazy afternoon. Unaccented Spanish can be heard all around, indicating the people are somewhere in the Americas, probably Mexico. The setting is a sedate plaza, people clutch ice creams, others drink fruit juices or flavored waters. The young woman wanders through the plaza with her camera and mic, asking questions of several couples and a number of individuals:

"Do you know anybody who smokes or consumes marijuana?" she asks.

Though most who respond break a cheeky grin, the substance of the responses vary--some people don't admit to knowing anything about marijuana, others say that their friends who smoke the dried plant are fun, a good laugh, that it doesn't hurt anybody. Still several others suggest that marijuana ruins mental and physical health. Yet another respondent -- none of whom provide their names -- says that the only people he knows who smoke marijuana are foreigners. But even the most tight-lipped respondents have smiles on their faces, or are attempting to hide them.

If you hadn't guessed it already, the location is Mexico City. The specific location is Coyoacan, an old colonial center in the south of the city, originally established as the home of Hernan Cortes in post-conquest, sixteenth century Mexico. Now in the twenty-first century Coyoacan's popular with couples, children, and individuals who want a day out away from the hustle and bustle of downtown, and all without leaving the city. The young woman with the camera and mic represents Colectivo Por Una Politica Integral Hacia las Drogas (CuPIHD), a civil society organization dedicated to finding a sensible solution to the so-called drug war.

CuPIHD's on-camera questioning warrants remark because Mexico is in the grips of a terrifying war between the government and drug cartels. With 23,000 dead, with civilians often in the crossfire, the last thing one would expect are Mexicans willing to share their opinions candidly about drugs. It's especially important to mention that journalists--civilians who also ask questions in public and publish their findings in newspapers and other media--have also been in the front line of the drug war. Mexico is the most dangerous place in the Americas for journalists to do their work. The Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) records high levels of violence. Just as recently as the end of June, the IAPA records its outrage over the assassination of two journalists in Guerrero. Asking questions about drugs clearly has it's dangers.

And yet these on-camera respondents do share candidly their opinions about drugs. This means that CuPIHD's video has found an opening in a debate about drugs in a society notoriously conservative about illicit drug use. (Mexicans are mostly unbothered by consumption of licit drugs, such as cigarettes and alcohol.) Take a look at the following chart, which comes from the Mexico City-based polling firm Parametria who conducted a survey in February 2008 about legalization of marijuana and other drugs. The results demonstrate that prevailing opinion in Mexico makes it a difficult place to organize in favor of drug reform.

The large green bar on the top graph represents the 21% of Mexico City residents who are in favor of legalizing marijuana. Nationally, and then in the rest of the states outside of Mexico City, support for marijuana legalization dwindles. And yet, in the bottom graph, which represents for (green) and against (red) legalization of other drugs, far fewer Mexicans support more liberal drugs laws.

But at least with CuPIHD's video there's evidence that it's possible to talk sensibly about drugs in Mexico. And their work may make people think more about the costs--in lives, and to the truth--of prohibition.