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This past Friday, academic, psychiatrist, and former director of the National Autonomous University in Mexico (UNAM) Juan Ramón de la Fuente came to San Antonio to give a lecture in Spanish about the binational perspective of drug usage. More than 50 people attended the lecture by the prominent Mexican political figure, which was organized by the Asociación de Empresarios Mexicanos (AEM) and took place at the Plaza Club in the Frost Bank Tower.
de la Fuente made it very clear that one cannot discuss any issue relating to the binational relationship between Mexico and the United States without noting the recent rhetoric that has been used by the “unnamable” Republican U.S. presidential candidate.
“In Mexico, the same as here, we feel deeply aggrieved and offended by the insults, the lies, and the defamation that has been made towards the Mexican people in the context of a political campaign in the U.S.,” de la Fuente said. “They are wrong – those who think that we are a country full of rapists, that we are a country that wants to build walls, that we are a dishonest people, and that we as a country must pay the bill that a braggart wants to f— us over, who has no moral authority to talk like that about us.”
This powerful statement, which de la Fuente has since made at other events in Mexico this week, made national headlines in Mexico and drew loud applause and cheers from the Plaza Club crowd of local Mexican professionals, civic leaders, and educators.
UNAM-USA San Antonio Director José Antonio Vela and AEM President Roberto Espinosa introduced de la Fuente during the breakfast, highlighted his professional achievements, and welcomed him to San Antonio.
de la Fuente currently teaches at UNAM and is chairman of the Aspen Institute México, a civil society organization that develops activities related to education, leadership, and public policy. He served as Mexico’s health secretary under President Ernesto Zedillo and as director of UNAM, where he helped obtain the World Heritage designation 0f the university’s Central University City Campus in 2007. During his academic career, de la Fuente has published more than 200 original works and helped edit more than 20 books about medicine, education, and more.
During his special presentation, de la Fuente stressed that both countries must work together when it comes to bilateral economic development and drug policy.
“You don’t have to agree, but you have to respect,” he said, because Mexico and the U. S. have more in common than what separates them. Additionally, de la Fuente spoke of San Antonio’s important placement on the international map and noted the vitality of the local Mexican nationals that have been in San Antonio “for several generations and keep coming.”
“San Antonio is a model city that exemplifies how the relationship between two countries who share an extensive border should be,” he said. “It unites us and will keep uniting us forever.”
The drug use problem is really a binational one, de La Fuente said firmly, since the U.S. is responsible for the strongest demand of drugs. According to his research and international data from the World Mental Health Survey Consortium, the U.S. has more drug abuse problems than Mexico and Colombia.
“We aren’t the only ones to blame (for the drug problem). We must work together and find solutions instead of throwing blame around,” de la Fuente said, adding in English that, “It takes two to tango.”
What should we do about drugs?
Human beings have used mind or body-altering substances since the beginning of time, de la Fuente said.
“These drugs (or substances) have always been with us,” he told the audience, and they likely always will be. So, instead of arresting drug users and drug dealers, the government should try to get them help and address the issue at its root. “We have to be realistic. I think that drug policy regulations are necessary for all illegal drugs.”
de la Fuente presented and compared several models of public policy and regulations pertaining to drugs that are currently in place in several countries and shared the results and consequences of each one. He categorized Mexico’s public policy on drugs as “prohibitionist,” the U.S.’s as “ambivalent,” and the European Union’s and Portugal’s as “permissive.”
Additionally, de la Fuente said, there is a very strong relationship between consumption and violence and market and violence in countries where drugs proliferate.
“The earlier you use the drug, the more dependent you’ll become,” he said. “Nowadays (in Mexico and the U.S.) there is a big cocaine problem, but heroin (is especially on the rise). The real point of entry to drugs, or the ‘gateway,’ is alcohol, not marijuana,” as many might think. It’s been proven that people who don’t drink alcohol are less likely to try other drugs, he added.
According to research, cannabis has a dependency percentage of 9%, amphetamines 11%, alcohol 15%, cocaine 17%, heroin 23%, and nicotine 32%.
“The risk of dependency is greater in legal substances than illegal substances,” de La Fuente said. “It makes no sense how we are classifying them.”
A problem of health, not criminalization
de la Fuente said Portugal’s public policy on drugs is very liberal. However, he explained, the country has significantly reduced overall drug consumption and the majority of adults who are drug users are in treatment, not in jail.
“In 2001, the consumption of all drugs was decriminalized … (drug users) are referred to a health program instead of going to jail and this has been more successful,” de la Fuente said. “I repudiate drugs, but someone who consumes a drug, isn’t (automatically a) criminal. This is a health problem, not a criminal problem.”
de la Fuente firmly believes that all drugs are damaging, but he said the way to combat the problem is by structuring stronger prevention programs throughout Mexico and the U.S. “Do we put young people in jail, or do we educate them?” he asked the audience.
“Addicts are sick individuals, and we have to change them from delinquents to patients,” he said. “Violence, money laundering, corruption – everything that outrages us – is not the result of someone consuming the drug, but the result of the campaign against drugs.”
According to de La Fuente, the government’s objectives should be on public health and lessening the damage that drugs have on individuals, families, and society as a whole. The key is to differentiate addictive substances according to their level of harm and create educational and prevention campaigns, he said.
“With this, we reduce addiction,” de la Fuente said. “Let’s not militarize or declare war on drugs. We have to educate, educate, educate.”
UNAM students, alongside de la Fuente, held an investigation at the Servicio Médico Forense (SEMEFO) in México City, where they gathered data from bodies that had positive toxicology results. At 77.3%, alcohol was the most prolific substance, followed by tranquilizers at 7.7%, cannabis at 7.4%, and cocaine at 5.7%.
de la Fuente touched on marijuana further. Although he is in favor of the state controlling the sale, production, and distribution of marijuana, and even though the drug has potentially beneficial effects as a pain reliever, anticonvulsant, and more, it also brings forth many negative consequences, de la Fuente said.
In the U.S., the legal market of cannabis for this year is estimated at $4.7 billion, and scholars believe it will get to $20 billion during the year 2020.
“In the United States, marijuana for ‘therapeutic’ purposes is legal in 24 states, but there is a huge market that already exceeded the NIH‘s budget of $111 million for medical investigations of cannabis,” de la Fuente added. “The market already surpassed this and it has skyrocketed. Once we get to extremes, we lose control of everything and I don’t like that … and my fellow scientists in (the U.S.) agree with me.”
This new commercial industry of drugs, that seemingly has no limits, is risky, de la Fuente said, as it brings forth the danger of synthetic and more potent drugs, which can be more dangerous than naturally grown marijuana if it reaches the public.
“It’s not just marijuana alone now. Now, it’s synthetic and much more potent derivatives (of the drug),” he said, adding that while he’s for legalization of marijuana, he doesn’t believe it should be done indiscriminately.
“Hopefully we can find a middle ground,” de la Fuente said.
de la Fuente stressed that drug usage and its consequences affect both Mexico and the U.S., and that both countries can work to better public health for everyone.
“I think we need to synthesize the binational relationship in this and other topics. We have to work in a joint way, especially on the border line,” he said. “It’s as if there are three countries: Mexico, the United States, and the border. The border is a third segment where we can do many things and work together.”
Top image: Accomplished professor, academic, and psychiatrist Juan Ramón de la Fuente addresses guests at the Frost Bank Plaza Tower during his lecture on binational perspectives of drug abuse. Photo by Rocío Guenther.