David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected], 5/5/06
Today I'm embarrassed by the role played by my government in quashing a decriminalization bill in Mexico. The legislation, which had passed Mexico's congress and which President Vicente Fox's spokesperson said he would sign, would have eliminated criminal penalties for low-level drug possession -- sort of, anyway -- though it was also a mixed bag that would have opened up drug enforcement to many more police officers than currently can participate in it. Probably it would have been a net gain for drug reform overall, perhaps a big one.
Though Mexican critics of the bill played some role, the heavy-handed influence of the United States was easy to spot. Quotes from San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders typified the reflexive, hysterical reaction from US officialdom: "I'm appalled. I'm in a state of disbelief," he told the Associated Press, "I certainly think we are going to see more drugs available in the United States. We need to register every protest the American government can muster." The US government wants Mexico "to ensure that all persons found in possession of any quantity of illegal drugs be prosecuted or be sent into mandatory drug treatment programs," commanded US Embassy spokeswoman Judith Bryan in a written statement. Media played a role too -- for example, an almost completely one-sided piece by CNN's Anderson Cooper on Wednesday, featuring minutes of raving by fellow CNN'er Lou Dobbs betraying his profound lack of understanding of economics and cross-border drug traffic. Fox caved under the pressure, and the bill is dead, at least for now.
I don't think I'm alone in believing the United States does not have the right to tell its fellow nations in the world how to handle drug policy. It's not as if our own policies have succeeded. For example, data released last month by the Office of National Drug Control Policy showed there is as much coca being grown in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, the major cocaine source countries, now as when the US-directed Plan Colombia/Andean Initiative got underway under President Clinton. Our own criminalization of users has led to terrible inhumanities, such as the dire spread of Hepatitis C and HIV among drug injectors -- a tragedy greatly increased by laws restricting syringe availability and the fear users have that possessing a syringe for longer than it takes to use it will increase their likelihood of arrest.
Three years ago, DRCNet hosted "Out from the Shadows: Ending Drug Prohibition in the 21st Century," a Latin American legalization summit convened in Mexico's city of Mérida, in the Yucatan, that brought together numerous leaders and concerned citizens from throughout the hemisphere. Though reason is not wholly absent even north of the US-Mexico border, in Latin America it is plentiful, as a few of the comments made at the conference show:
"The only solution is legalization, but it will be a long, hard process... Just taking drugs in itself does not hurt the rights of others, and a democratic, pluralistic state cannot justify this. There is no worse dictatorship than that which seeks to impose its ideas over all others."Mayor Sanders should listen to de Greiff. Though Sanders and others of his ilk predicted drugs would become more available in the US and kids would cross the border to use them if the bill passed, he need only look to the high schools in his city -- or any US city -- to see how easily available drugs are now, under the current system. If drugs were legal and regulated, instead of prohibited (and therefore out of control), at least we could have age limits and at a minimum keep the drug trade itself off of school grounds. Not that the Mexico bill would achieve that -- mere decriminalization of use and possession cannot end illegal drug dealing unless there is also some legal supply route. But kids in the US can already buy the drugs they want, usually from other kids and with low probability of getting caught; and kids near the border can do so in the US or in Mexico, also with low probability of getting caught. So Sanders' fears are unwarranted -- or rather, they have already long since come true, but for different reasons that he doesn't want to understand.
Oh, the embarrassment! I'm sorry, Mexico -- sorry that many of your citizens will have their lives turned upside down when it could have been stopped were it not for our interference. Please, try again, and soon, we need you to help us by pointing the way.