MEXICO CITY -- Mexico decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, cocaine and heroin on Friday, in a move that creates one of the world's most permissive narcotics markets and that opponents say could complicate President Felipe Calderón's war against illegal drug cartels.
The law goes beyond what is allowed in many other countries by making it legal to possess small amounts of a wide array of drugs. For instance, the new law allows the equivalent of about five joints of marijuana or four lines of cocaine.
The softened approach to small-scale drug possession comes as Mexico fights drug gangs that account for a large part of the marijuana and cocaine sold on U.S. streets. In Mexico, more than 12,000 people have died in the past three years in the cartels' battles for turf and clashes with law enforcement.
The gangs are also selling more and more drugs domestically, fueling drug addiction. A 2008 government survey found that the number of drug addicts in Mexico had almost doubled in the past six years to 307,000, while the number of those who had tried drugs rose to 4.5 million from 3.5 million.
Mexican prosecutors say the law will help the war on drug gangs by letting federal prosecutors focus their attention on traffickers rather than small-time users.
"This frees us from a flood of small crimes that have saturated our federal government and allows the authorities to go after big criminals," said Bernardo Espino del Castillo, an official with Mexico's Attorney General's office who helped design the new law.
Still, Mexico's move could anger some allies in Washington. Mexico tried to pass a similar law in 2005, but the Bush administration objected strongly, killing the initiative.
This time around, the Obama administration has kept largely silent on the issue. U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske said in July he would adopt a "wait-and-see attitude" about the new Mexican law, which was passed in April.