Mexico's 'Cannabis Libraries' reflect rising drug problem, and changing attitudes

Mexico's Cannabis Libraries, public collections of reliable information about illegal drugs, help to educate citizens in a country that is seeing consumption on the rise.

In the corner of a library situated in a Mexico City park, stands a lonely yellow bookshelf lined with tomes on marijuana, cocaine, pills, psychedelics, and the like.

This nook is known as the Biblioteca Canábica, or the Cannabis Library, and it's an attempt by civil society organizations here to create a go-to place for reliable information about illegal drugs for parents, teachers, teens, and others. It’s also a subtle way of raising the volume on a debate that is growing ever louder in Mexico: whether to legalize drugs.

“We want a healthier relationship with drugs,” says Carlos Zamudio, director of the Cannabis Library project. "[T]he relationship we have now has brought us problems with violence and health. A healthier relationship requires regulating drugs in a different way.”

Apparently Mexican President Felipe Calderón is warming to the idea. Once stridently opposed to legalization, President Calderón has softened his tone on the subject as his six-year term winds down into its final year.

Calderón launched a war on drug traffickers in 2006, which has cost more than 40,000 lives. He recently told the United Nations General Assembly in New York that consumer nations are “morally obligated” to “search for options, including market alternatives” if they can’t, or don’t want to reduce demand.

The first Cannabis Library was founded in 2003, and there are now six locations across Mexico City. A seventh location opened in the nearby city of Puebla in January. The Cannabis Libraries are grouped together within actual public libraries, as well as within cultural centers and cafés. All told, the project boasts a collection of about 600 books.

On the bookshelf at the park library in a trendy Mexico City neighborhood is a book in English called “Buzzed: The Straight Facts About the Most Used & Abused Drugs from Alcohol to Ecstasy.” Another in Spanish is titled “Drug Addiction and Drug Trafficking: Legal Aspects.” Then there is, in English, “Why Marijuana Should Be Legal.”

There is a copy of the Mexican Constitution - to teach citizens about their laws - as well as a copy of an Aztec manuscript translated into Latin in 1552. It includes drawings of substances labeled in the ancient Nahuatl language, plants with names like “ayecohtli” and “tolohuaxihuitl.”

Mexico has long been a producer country, particularly of marijuana and synthetic drugs, and a key distribution route for South American cocaine. But consumption is a newer problem and is on the rise. A 2008 study by Mexico’s INEGI statistics agency showed cocaine use among the population doubled to 2.4 percent while marijuana use rose to 4.2 percent from 3.5 percent compared with 2002 levels.

In 2009, Mexico quietly changed its legal framework. While public consumption and sales remain prohibited, new laws permit limited personal use of marijuana, cocaine, LSD, and heroin. That’s about four joints, half a gram of cocaine, or 50 milligrams of heroin.

Those opposed to legalization may accuse the Cannabis Libraries of supporting it. One of their new campaigns is named “L.S.D." But it's not a push to accept that drug in particular. It's a play on words - an acronym in Spanish standing for “Leer Sobre Drogas," or in English, "Read About Drugs."

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