updated 8/20/2009 9:45:50 PM ET 2009-08-21T01:45:50

Mexico enacted a controversial law on Thursday that decriminalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and other drugs while encouraging free government treatment for drug dependency.

The law defines "personal use" amounts for drugs, also including LSD and methamphetamines. People detained with those quantities no longer face criminal prosecution when the law goes into effect on Friday.

Anyone caught with drug amounts under the personal-use limit will be encouraged to seek treatment, and for those caught a third time treatment is mandatory — although the law does not specify penalties for noncompliance.

In 2006, the U.S. government publicly criticized a similar bill. Then-President Vicente Fox sent that law — which did not have a mandatory treatment provision — back to Congress for reconsideration.

The maximum amount considered to be for "personal use" under the new law is 5 grams of marijuana — the equivalent of two or three joints — or a half-gram of cocaine. The limit for methamphetamine is 40 milligrams, and 0.015 milligrams of LSD.

The law was approved by Congress before it recessed in late April, and President Felipe Calderon — who is leading a major offensives against drug cartels — waited most of the summer before enacting it.

Calderon's original proposal would have required first-time detainees to complete treatment or face jail time. But the lower house of Congress, where Calderon's party was short of a majority, weakened the bill.

Violent offenders
Mexico has emphasized the need to differentiate between addicts or casual consumers and the violent drug traffickers whose turf battles have contributed to the deaths of over 11,000 people during Calderon's term. And in the face of growing domestic drug use, Mexico has increased its focus on prevention and drug treatment.

Sen. Pablo Gomez of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party praised the legislation: "This law achieves the decriminalization of drugs, and in exchange, offers government recovery treatment for addicts."

Previously, all drug possession was punishable by stiff jail sentences, with some leeway for those considered addicts and caught with smaller amounts. In practice, relatively few people were prosecuted and sentenced to jail for small-time possession.

While the United States openly expressed concern about the 2006 law, this time around it has been more circumspect.

Asked about the new law in July, U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske said he would adopt a "wait-and-see attitude."

"If the sanction becomes completely nonexistent I think that would be a concern, but I actually didn't read quite that level of de facto (decriminalization) in the law," said Kerlikowske, who heads the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Whether the law's proposed sanctions "are actually enough or not, I'm not sure," he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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