Days before the border's unofficial ambassador of drug legalization, New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, headed across the Rio Grande to practice his persuasive powers on his Mexican counterparts at the Border Governors Conference last weekend, Washington's official ambassador to Mexico, Jeffrey Davidow, was practicing drug policy damage control in Mexico City. At the border conference, held in Tampico, on the Gulf Coast, the governors of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas joined the governors of the Mexican states of Baja California, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Sonora, and Tamaulipas to announce they will study drug trafficking as a health issue, not just a criminal justice problem. (California Gov. Gray Davis stayed home to deal with the energy crisis.) In Mexico City, Davidow took to the halls of the University of the Valley of Mexico to launch a broadside against drug legalization.
The confluence of events suggests that the US government is finally beginning to comprehend that its drug policy consensus is rapidly eroding in Mexico. DRCNet, with the help of the Narco News service (http://www.narconews.com), has reported repeatedly on Mexican elected officials' statements calling for legalization of the drug trade or at least a willingness to explore the topic. But the rise of anti-drug war sentiment across the border is only now provoking a belated counteroffensive by the US embassy.
Speaking on June 1st, Davidow blasted drug legalization as a "false solution" that would lead only to a world of junkies, crime and violence. [Ed: Such a world would apparently be somehow distinct from today's world of junkies, crime and violence.] Davidow sketched out the libertarian and harm reduction approaches to legalization for his young audience, then attempted to demolish them.
Calling the idea that the state should not be able to interfere with the private lives of citizens "very attractive reasoning," Davidow then proceeded to explain why it was wrong. "The majority of societies recognize that the authority of the government brings with it the responsibility to promote and preserve accepted codes of conduct," he argued. Then, adopting an extremist depiction of drug use, the ambassador drew an equally extreme conclusion. "A society that adopts the position that it must allow those who want to commit suicide using drugs to do so has lost much more than the battle against illicit drugs -- it has lost its own moral sense."
But Davidow devoted most of his speech to attacking the argument that legalization would decrease the social harm associated with drug abuse and drug trafficking. "Narcotics are illegal because of the damage they cause, they don't cause damage because they are illegal," he argued.
Davidow went out of his way to attack the success of harm reduction programs in Holland, Switzerland, and England, as well as to overstate the success with which the United States has grappled with its own drug problem. He even argued that prohibition should be maintained because "the use of drugs would reduce the productivity and, in the long term, affect the tax base."
Davidow ended his plea for more prohibition with a grim enjoinder to keep up the good fight. "We have not won the war against drugs, but neither have we lost it. In fact, I reject the term 'war' because all wars have an end, and the fight against drugs should not have one. We could be fighting against the commerce of illicit drugs for much of the future," he said.
Unfortunately for Davidow and the rest of the US foreign policy drug-war establishment, the border governors are looking in a different direction. In a move initiated by the Mexican governors, they announced on June 8th that they will form a commission of scholars from both sides of the border to focus on drug smuggling as a public health issue.
New Mexico Gov. Johnson cheered the idea. "I couldn't be more excited about what happened here," he told the Associated Press. "I happen to believe that this is the reason why we have a militarized border and this whole concept or belief that everyone who comes across the border is a drug trafficker -- that's the perception of the United States."
Chihuahua Gov. Patricio Martinez, who has survived an assassin's bullet, but hundreds of whose constituents have died in border violence related to drug trafficking, had already come out in favor of putting legalization on the agenda, but reiterated that stand at the conference.
"This should be studied, analyzed, and looked at to see what the people want and what the effects are from a different perspective that considers not only their prohibition, but also in given time their approval for medical purposes or rehabilitation or other reasons," he told the conference. "We need to study all aspects of drug use, especially marijuana."
But not everyone was ready to hop on the reform bandwagon. Baja California Gov. Alejandro Gonzalez told the conference the time and situation were not right. "I think the consensus was to give more attention to the health problems caused by drug trafficking," he said, "but to be able to consider legalizing some of these drugs, such as marijuana -- one country or one region can't do it when it is a problem of many countries."
Clearly, the border governors were not ready for a great leap into the unknown, but the conference results are yet one more indication that drug war orthodoxy is crumbling on both sides of the border.
Gov. Johnson pronounced himself satisfied with the progress. "You don't go from an arrest 'em, lock 'em situation to legalization overnight," he told the AP, "but every governor here is at least willing to look at some middle ground."
They must be sweating in the bunker at the Glorieta.
(Davidow's speech is available at http://www.narconews.com/thegreatdebate.html online, as are responses to it as they come in.)
Recent DRCNet coverage of the legalization debate in Mexico includes: