Drugs Don’t Work. Or Do They? Zara Snapp’s Unorthodox Answer To Mexico’s Drug Problem
In May 2022, the Mexican government officially recognised over 100,000 desaparecidos – so-called disappeared people most believed to have been victims of drug-related violence. That figure, says Zara Snapp, is, without a doubt, an undercount. “[This statistic] is the official data they are willing to recognise,” says Snapp wryly. As an American-Mexican drug-reform policy leader, her unequivocal conviction that this number is a severe “undercount” is plausible. Which is why this activist and critic of the Mexican government’s approach to the war on drugs (“The war on drugs is a war on people”) offers a bold and somewhat controversial alternative to bringing peace to the region: legalising all drugs.
Snapp, a Mexican-born American, says her interest in drug-reform policy was stoked by her interest in… drugs; as she reminisces on her youth, she admits, “I engaged in typical teenage drug experimentation.” There was, however, a turning point. “As a privileged white 15-year-old growing up in the US and spending my summers in Mexico, I saw my Latino, Asian and Black friends stopped, with some caught up in the criminal justice system – and I wasn’t.”
Snapp’s permanent return to Mexico in 2006 coincided with the launch of the war on drugs. The changes were palpable: “Suddenly the military were on the streets,” she says. A surge in violence, murder, corruption and human rights abuses followed. “Since the 1970s the US has pushed for prohibition and eradication of crops in Mexico, arguing it is the responsibility of producing countries to stamp out drug supply, even while demand continues to rise in the US,” Snapp says. Prohibition wasn’t working and Snapp believes this is because prohibition ignores the enjoyable aspects of substance use. It is, she argues, the same reason why sex education focused on abstinence often fails. “Sex and substances bring us pleasure and wellbeing.” Hence, as the co-founder of Instituto RIA in 2017, a civil society organisation in Mexico City focused on drug legalisation and regulation, Snapp incorporates the pleasure principle into her advocacy. A hallmark of RIA’s work, she explains, “is meeting people where they are and not trying to change them. We focus on how to get services to them and protect them, and we also aim to help them manage pleasure.” Which means decriminalising drugs and legally regulating drugs for adult use. “This is part of a larger generational shift of consciousness,” she says. “People care about the clothes they wear, the food they eat and the drugs they consume.”
There is scientific evidence to suggest that the decriminalisation of drugs reduces societal harms associated with drugs. Think needle exchange programmes, supervised drug consumption facilities and opioid substitution therapy, among others. RIA is now pushing the boundaries and seeking more than decriminalisation. It advocates regulating the entire drug market in Mexico. Snapp says: “It is imperative that indigenous growers and others already involved in cultivating and selling drugs can obtain licenses and attain financial security in the system.” This would ensure a racially equitable and socially just legal drug trade. Recognising the delicate nature and danger of working with drug cartels and indigenous growers, RIA focuses its efforts on an aspect of the system it can change: the Mexican government.
Snapp brings a wealth of expertise to this work. After graduate school at Harvard, where she was a recipient of the prestigious Truman Fellowship, Snapp participated in seminal foundational work. She formed part of the secretariat of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, focusing on the Latin American strategy, working with the likes of former secretary-general of the United Nations Kofi Annan and former presidents of Mexico, Columbia, Chile and Poland, among others, to produce Taking Control: Pathways To Drug Policies That Work. This report called for altering the failed international regime on drug policy. Ultimately, says Snapp, “this was about breaking the taboo around drugs”.
This stigma of advocating for legalised and regulated drug markets impedes efforts by Snapp and her co-founder Jorge Herrera Valderrábano to secure funding. Further, admitting to recreational drug use carries negative stereotypes about their maturity and credibility. Snapp’s approach: getting high on her own supply embraces this stigma as a strategy to bring about change. “I’m coming out of the closet and talking about my own drug use. There is power in authenticity,” she says. Attorney Andrés Aguinaco represented Snapp in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of cannabis prohibition in Mexico. In 2018, Mexico declared the law unconstitutional.
That said, RIA’s work remains daunting. Police still harass and extort cannabis growers and users. Other drugs remain banned, fuelling the underground economy empowering cartels. But Snapp, a mother of two, says she draws on the Mothers of the Disappeared, who march every Mother’s Day. “This inspires me to continue blazing forward.”
Jamie Brooks Robertson is a London-based writer, independent scholar, and emerging essayist focusing on health and culture