Drug Policy Reform Mexico

Destigmatization and drug policy reform in Mexico

Instituto RIA’s vision for peace and social justice

Instituto RIA is a non-profit organization in Mexico fighting for social justice and peace through drug education and drug policy reform. While it started out small, inspired by its co-founders’ desire to provide “stigma-free and prejudice-free drug education” in a context dominated by moralistic discourse, today the organization is a force to be reckoned with, especially within the marijuana legalization movement. 

Through research and advocacy, Instituto RIA seeks to move drug policy away from the focus on “repression, criminalization, and punishment” that has characterized it thus far, to instead center “human rights, public health, and community well-being,” all while (crucially) centering the populations most affected by the War on Drugs and prohibitionist policy. 

We had the privilege of interviewing one of RIA’s Co-founders, Jorge Herrera Valderrabano, as well as Romina Vazquez, Advocacy Communications Coordinator. In our conversation, they shared the organization’s inspiration, mission and vision, and broke down the relationship between peace and drug regulation in Mexico. We also discussed their research, especially on peace-building, and the drug policies they promote as an organization, diving deep into their work on the legalization of marijuana as part of the #RegulaciónPorLaPaz  coalition.

For readers unfamiliar with your work, how would you introduce Instituto RIA?

JORGE:We are an organization that has been doing research and advocacy on drug policy, social justice and peace-building issues for the past three years. We analyze the potential processes, decisions, and actions that civil society, the industry, and public institutions need to take to improve the conditions in which we live. Specifically, we analyze the issue of drug policies and how we can have public policies that are more focused on human rights, public health, community well-being and less on repression, criminalization and a punitive approach, which is what has characterized drug policy.”

ROMINA:I would also describe Instituto RIA as a place of a lot of learning, where we try to provide useful and digestible information on the complex issues of psychoactive substances and drug policies. For example, we had a project, called Pechas Psicoactivas, of presentations about substances, divided by their categorization, into psychedelics or stimulants, for example, made by experts on the subject. This is information that is normally not accessible, or unreliable, or loaded with stigma.

So what we wanted to do with this exercise was to remove some of the prejudice and show psychoactive substances as they are. Without idealizing or romanticizing them, simply demonstrating: this is the information out there. We are very interested in doing this with graphic materials as well. On Valentine’s Day, for example, we talked about MDMA, since it is known colloquially as the substance of love. So we take advantage of those moments, those key days, to provide useful information.”


Image credits to Instituto RIA.


What are Instituto RIA’s mission and vision?

JORGE:The thing is we always change them… Every year things evolve and transform, and we better delineate the necessities, and, accordingly, our strategies. On the one hand, it is to use education as a transformation mechanism, and obviously to bring this information close to the key populations. We know there’s no use in showing these tools and then just leaving them on any old platform. There has to be the active work of taking this information to those who need it, and who can benefit from it.”

How do you conceive the relationship between peace and drug regulation in Mexico? How does it compare to the U.S.?

JORGE: “It is necessary to contextualize this issue of drug policies, of regulation, of the need for a paradigm shift on this. Because for example, the context in the United States has been one of mass incarceration, repression, criminalization, but most of it is motivated mainly by questions of race. In Mexico, the context is very different and rather we have seen a criminalization of the countryside, the rural sector, the communities that are growing cannabis. There are several indigenous communities dedicated to cultivation, but I do not think that the repression has focused on those communities for these reasons, but precisely because they are super impoverished groups that see in harvesting and sales to organized crime their only livelihood.

There is also a situation of arbitrary arrests that people who use drugs experience, but where the police ask for money in exchange for not imprisoning, which is not necessarily the context of countries in the north of the world. We live in a very unique situation of extortion by authorities. But the abuses by police, here, are more of a corruption issue, rather than of ideology or repression, the way it is in the United States. Corruption is a way to earn extra income in the context of the precarious employment conditions of the security elements.


Image credits to Instituto RIA & Este País (Instagram @institutoriamx).


So I think that discussing peace construction in relation to drug policy is about how we can reduce the structural violence associated with these issues, how we can reduce the violence the State exercises on all these populations: the cultivating communities, the people who use drugs, and those who commercialize them. With a new approach to these issues we can begin to forge paths that can lead us to this scenario we call peace, which is obviously different for each country, community, and context.”

Romina, in turn, centered the militarization of public security and the war on drugs in her description of the relationship between drug regulation and peace in Mexico. 

“I relate the two in terms of our context as a country where public security is militarized. 

Since the official declaration of the war on drugs in 2006,  violence, and homicides of men and women in public spaces have increased, under this slogan that drugs are an enemy to be fought, somewhat replicating the United States model. 


Image credits to Instituto RIA & ReverdeSer Colectivo.


There have been intentions of the current government, clearly delineated in the National Development Plan, to end this. Although we have seen a small decrease in these military bodies, and another body called the National Guard was created that had the intention of not exercising that repression, it is composed of the same military office. So the human rights violations continue despite the objective of stopping them.

So I think peace and drug regulation are directly related in Mexico. You can be against the consumption of all substances. However, in terms of public security, there is an agenda there, because in this country, we are all, to a greater or lesser extent, affected by violence, by the clashes of armed groups.

That is where the principal argument for the end of the war on drugs lies: it has not eradicated consumption, instead there are real, flesh and blood, victims. You can agree or disagree with consumption, but either way, there is an overflowing situation of violence we cannot continue to ignore”.

On your website, you qualify your research as “high level” on multiple occasions. What does this mean in practice?

JORGE: “We consider “high level” investigations those that can be presented in decision-making spaces at an international level, in which we also generate collaborations with government institutions, international organizations. We did a series of publications titled Construcción de paz y políticas de drogas (Peacebuilding and drug policy) with the Swiss Confederation, for example. In other words, research that has the distinguishing feature that allows you to take this information  to other spaces with greater advocacy impact.”

ROMINA:It also has to do with the rigor of our investigations. We want pragmatic, truthful, evidence-based information that does not stigmatize, especially because these are topics plagued by misinformation. We especially saw this in the discussions in the chambers, some legislators did not have the real information, now that the regulation of cannabis was being discussed. We do this exercise, of respecting our audience enough to revise everything with a magnifying glass. Obviously we are human, but we stick very closely to our standards of rigor.”

JORGE:In addition, we approach individual experts or institutions that specialize in each of the topics. Because when you discuss drug policy, you need to know science, law, public policy, or economics… So it also has to do with who we work with to ensure it has the rigor as well as the methodological and academic backing it requires.”

In 2019, in collaboration with ReverdeSer Colectivo, you implemented “workshops in five places in the country to explore the notions of peace, peacebuilding and the mechanisms to begin to embark on a path towards it.” What were the findings from these workshops, and how would they translate into concrete recommendations and / or changes?

Jorge explained that the project’s goal was two-fold: “to know the needs and experiences of communities around the country”, and to utilize this knowledge to create publications for advocacy, using a process of “empirical intervention”. He also emphasized the importance of the project’s pluralism, before breaking down the focus of the workshops. 

“We visited different communities, precisely to not only stick to one perspective, say that of cultivating communities, for example. We also carried out these workshops with people with family members who experienced forced disappearance or other grave human rights violations. It is about bringing together a very multidisciplinary group – or rather, going to these communities – to learn about their experiences.

We tried to inquire: What does peace mean to you? How do we get to this stage we call peace? We also tried to delimit this on the pillars of transitional justice, creation of truth, construction of memory, and reparation of damage. It also serves to give these groups of family members and cultivators a frame of reference through which they can make their demands, their proposals and carry out their activities within those areas.”  


Image credits to Instituto RIA (Caminar Hacia La Paz).


Image credits to Instituto RIA.


The results of these workshops were put into two publications:  “Dejar atrás el miedo” [Leaving fear behind] and “Caminar hacia la paz” [Walking towards peace]. The first functions as a “state of the art”, detailing the workshops’ findings and the characteristics of peace identified by each of the five communities, “[which] include basic things, like that to guarantee truth or to repair damage, human rights must be respected. In other words, notions that can sometimes be very simplistic, but that are necessary to highlight in the work we are doing”. 

“Using this analysis from the first publication, we created our second one, Caminar hacia la paz, which is precisely our public policy recommendations. We also recounted what has been experienced in Mexico and what the Government’s actions have been in the last two years to move towards this scenario [of peace] and to leave the war behind. 


Image credits to Instituto RIA (Caminar Hacia La Paz).


And then it includes a series of recommendations, no longer for public policy, but in relation to daily life, and how we can measure the fulfillment of peace in our day to day with our relationships, with family, friends, neighbors… And also, how the study can boost all these efforts executed at the individual or community level. Broadly speaking, those are the publications and the project.” 


Image credits to Instituto RIA (Caminar Hacia La Paz).


Your website and publications indicate that the daily peace indicators established in this project must be “shielded against co-optation by elites”. How would this be implemented in practice?

JORGE: “A philosophical reflection… They are formulated as indicators precisely so that institutions can produce measurements based upon them. This is how they are imagined, as indicators, but of course they can be formulated as actions that each person can take on a community level.

Shielding from elites has more to do with strengthening communities, providing employment, economic and social opportunities, bringing government services closer to them; seeing the complete or comprehensive issue in order to reduce the dependency that these populations may have. They are generally marginalized groups, communities made vulnerable by their dependence on corrupt elites that have governmental and institutional legitimacy, as well as on criminal groups that extort and violate as well.

It is therefore necessary to provide a series of tools and processes that can strengthen these communities or these groups to stop their vulnerability to extortion by all these institutions, which is not only organized crime, but also the elites.”

What drug policies have you, as an organization, promoted or do you currently promote?

ROMINA:The process of the regulation of cannabis in our country has been, for the most part, civil society’s response to the prohibitionist mode, and we as an organization, try to articulate their demands. We have participated in a variety of audiences, panels, in open parliaments, to advocate for and lobby on, well, how a law should be. The Supreme Court already declared the prohibition of the cultivation and consumption of cannabis for adults anti-constitutional and a violation of the right to the free development of personality. But with these audiences and our advocacy, our approach revolves on how this new law, respecting the human rights of people who cultivate, people who use, and patients, should be. 


Image credits to Instituto RIA.


We want a certain number of licenses to be granted to prioritize their incursion in the legal market, and to prevent its cooptation by the elite, by big companies. We want to benefit those who have disproportionately suffered because of the prohibition policy, be it through extortion, disappearances, eradication of cultivations, or criminalization of their labor… 

We have been honing in on this process because it is like a door to continue regulating other substances. Next we want to focus on amapola, because here in Mexico we are predominantly producers of marijuana and amapola.

Yes, there are legislators who have been key, important allies, but all this is primarily the response of organizations, of the organized civil society, thanks to its constant work, we are now almost there. It’s been constant tears and sweat. It’s been a very arduous process that comes from us, in a collective manner, not just from Instituto RIA, but from all the organizations and people that make up the coalition of #RegulaciónporlaPAZ. It’s a completely collective effort.” 


Image credits to #RegulaciónporlaPAZ.


JORGE: “It’s also about what we have promoted  to be included within the law, for instance mechanisms to limit the participation of large capitals, to pave the way for the participation of small and medium-sized companies, rural communities, and production cooperatives.

There were some versions in the law that established that 40% of the cultivation licenses, for example, would go to rural/farming communities, communal properties… That proposal was diluted, so to speak. Whether or not such mechanisms are contained in the law (which they should be), we will be following the implementation phase, so that if it’s not written into the legislature, it might be as a program or plan of action within institutions, such CONADIC  (the National Commission for Addiction Prevention) or the Ministry of Rural Development.


Image credits to Instituto RIA.


Image credits to Instituto RIA.


Image credits to Instituto RIA.


Image credits to Instituto RIA.


It is important to continue watching how this regulation will be implemented. Another aspect of all this is the work we have done to get the industry to commit to these issues. You don’t just have to comply with what the government says, you can contribute and use your business tools to support these populations, to improve the living conditions of the communities that have been impacted by the policy of prohibition and now have the opportunity to enter this regulated market.

Even people who were or are currently incarcerated [for marjuana related crimes] could benefit from this legislation. We need to think about creating a series of social and economic opportunities for these people, who could benefit from this regulation, and add value to this emerging industry.

Massachusetts is a good example of this type of policies or programs that can be implemented to benefit the populations that have been most impacted by the prohibitionist policy. The state has an equity program precisely to provide distribution or commercialization licenses to those who were incarcerated for these crimes. The need to support these populations is not necessarily specified within the law, but in its implementation, the institutions involved with the issue are taking action.”

What have been Instituto RIA’s achievements in your campaign to reform drug policy, promote social justice, and build peace?

JORGE: “I think we have achieved a lot. The general population, society, and media have become far more sensitized to these issues.  The federal government’s addiction prevention strategy still leaves much to be desired, but at least now, most institutions present evidence-based information, without moral weight or tinges of judgment. I think part of this had to do with the work of psychoactive education Romina mentioned at the beginning, which has been very impactful in Mexico and particularly Mexico City. And I think it has permeated in institutions. 

It is wonderful to see the positions of deputies and senators showcasing our arguments, saying that drug policy criminalizes and is punitive, violates human rights, does not help with development, and that we have to move towards a regulation to guarantee rights to consumers of marijuana. Hearing all this in the legislative precincts is like a literal dream, because before, you would hear the complete opposite, terrible things. So I think that in these cultural, social, educational, and awareness-raising aspects, we have made a lot of progress.

 It is also an advance and an achievement that through CONADIC,  the Federal Government is at least talking about drugs. That is, maybe they are not doing it in the best way, in the most precise or assertive way, but they are already beginning this process. They are looking at an issue that is a priority and realizing the need to generate efforts about this.  

And as a civil society we have to accompany all these processes, from addiction prevention strategy and the regulation of cannabis, to the regulation of the poppy… They need to incorporate the perspective of the user, the perspective of the person who participates in the commercialization stage.” 

ROMINA: “I think Jorge was very complete and concise in his conclusion. I see a lot of progress. Although we took a long time to reach a possible approval, now at least there has been some back and forth in congress. We need to recognize that is a big step forward, and that no law is perfect. When it comes – which we hope is soon – it won’t meet all of our expectations. But we will keep putting pressure on the way there. The truth is if we look at international drug policies, none of them are perfect. There are very pragmatic models that were very novel in their time, like the cases of Portugal and Switzerland. However, it is now necessary to rethink them and how they can be improved.

I have also seen, as Jorge said, much more information and more sensitivity in addressing certain topics. I see this especially in how they address people who use drugs. There is less stigma. I think these have been our main successes, in addition to creating many alliances with organizations, and strengthening these networks of support and community. 

And seeing so many people wanting to get involved is a success, people like you, who reach out to interview us or get involved. There’s always very active participation, new emails from people interested in collaborating… That is something that we wouldn’t have had a couple years ago – such a positive response.” 

To learn more about Instituto RIA’s fight for peace and social justice through drug education and drug policy reform, check out their website

They are also active on social media, where you can stay up to date on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or YouTube


Laura Czerniecki | University of California, Los Angeles

Laura is a senior at the University of California, Los Angeles, pursuing a major in Spanish and Portuguese. Her passion for Latina America first stemmed from her personal connection to Brazil. Although she was born and raised in Europe, her mother is Brazilian, and she is a native Portuguese speaker who grew up frequently visiting Brazil, and considering it home. As a high schooler, Laura developed a keen interest in social problems, and specifically the role of NGOs in working towards their solution. She had the opportunity to volunteer at an educational NGO in Paraísopolis, a favela in São Paulo, over two summers, an experience which highlighted the discrepancy between the reality of favelas and their sensationalized depictions in the media, as well as the underreported work of individuals within the community to create educational opportunities despite their socio-political marginalization. Laura’s study of Spanish throughout middle and high school piqued her curiosity about Latin America beyond Brazil, and once in college, she embraced the opportunity to further connect with her Brazilian heritage, while diving into the greater region academically, studying its history, cultures, literature, art, and social problems. As a Latin American Correspondent, Laura hopes to bring stories about the intersection of art, resistance, and social change to the forefront, as well as to highlight non-profit organizations, entrepreneurs and community leaders working to solve social problems in the region.