Mexico close to legalizing drug use

Copyright 2006 San Antonio Express-News
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San Antonio Express-News

MEXICO CITY — When it comes to drugs, this nation's reputation is more like violence-scarred Colombia than party-crazed Amsterdam.

But many here and in the United States were left scratching their heads and wondering if that could change Friday after the Mexican Congress passed legislation permitting personal-use quantities of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and other drugs.

There would be no criminal prosecution for those carrying or using small amounts of the drugs under the bill. It lacked only a signature by President Vicente Fox, who apparently supports the reforms.

Under the law, it would be legal to possess up to 5 grams of marijuana, 500 milligrams of cocaine and 25 milligrams of heroin, according to a statement released by Mexico's House and Senate.

A typical packet of sugar substitute holds 1 gram.

Observers say the bill appears designed to allow authorities to concentrate anti-drug efforts on bigger fish. It would permit local police -- rather than just federales -- to pursue drug cases.

It remains to be seen how such a law would impact crime, as users still would need to buy drugs, which would remain illegal.

And should drug use increase because of the lessened threat of arrest, it might trigger larger turf wars among drug cartels battling for new markets.

A spokesman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry expressed displeasure and called the vote a "tragic reversal of the war on drugs."

"Obviously, this will create a lot more problems with drug traffickers along the border," spokeswoman Kathy Walt said, adding that Texas had lost its "partner" in the drug war.

"We expect the situation will only get worse," she said.

Gary Johnson, the controversial Republican governor of New Mexico from 1994 to 2002, welcomed the move and suggested laws should be relaxed further.

"I think it is certainly a step in the right direction," Johnson said, taking a break from a marathon bike ride from New Mexico to California.

"If an individual is smoking marijuana in the confines of their own home, doing no harm to anyone other than arguably themselves, that shouldn't be a crime," he said.

The U.S. government, often critical of Mexico's efforts to fight drug cartels, declined to officially comment.

"We haven't studied the law yet, but any effort to decriminalize or legalize illegal drugs, even for personal use, would not be helpful," said a U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the delicate nature of international relations

José Angel Cordoba Villalobos, head of Mexico's congressional Health Commission, cautioned that nobody should expect to walk down a sidewalk smoking a joint.

"There has been some confusion -- use anywhere in public is prohibited," he said, adding that anyone caught near a school or carrying more than personal-use quantities will be prosecuted.

In some ways, the new law merely reinforces the obvious.

"If you are in your house and nobody has accused you of being a drug trafficker, no one is going to bother you," said Cordoba, a member of Fox's conservative National Action Party.

Fox's spokesman Rubén Aguilar indicated the president was on the same page.

"This law provides more judicial tools for authorities to fight crime," Aguilar said.

A member of Fox's staff later pointed out that while the president could sign the entire law, he also has the authority to send it back to Congress with recommendations for change.

The full text of the bill was not available Friday, and some observers suggested that once all of the details are released some of its provisions may become more precise.

Angel García, 41, a Mexico City guitarist and marijuana aficionado, said the bill addresses reality.

"A lot of people are using drugs in the streets right now -- nurses, bus drivers -- everybody does it, but hides it," he said.

García said he's spent time in Amsterdam, Netherlands, where drug use is permitted and is a tourism draw, and thought people handled it with a maturity not seen in a lot of places.

"The more you do not tell people what to do, the more responsible they will be with their decisions," said García, who like other Mexicans will have to wait and see what Fox does with the law.

Another aspect of the law requires that drug prosecutions be held under federal standards and therefore does away with new attempts to hold criminal trials in forums open to the public rather than requiring all testimony to be given privately in writing.

"The federal code is obsolete legislation, famous for producing lengthy written trials and exposing public officials to corruption," said Roberto Hernández, a Mexico City professor who studies the criminal-justice system. "Some states, like Nuevo Leon and many others have better, transparent adversarial criminal procedures to try those cases.

"This reform is a step back," he continued. "It is forcing these states to expose their judges to attempts of corruption from the delinquents who might have the economic power to bribe public officials."

Along the Rio Grande, drug-fueled violence and corruption are so entrenched that officials are desperate for relief.

Francisco Chavira, a Nuevo Laredo city councilman, supported the bill and said its provisions would allow authorities to focus on kingpins and spare the addicts.

"It is good that Congress passed the measure, because being a consumer and being a drug trafficker are not the same thing," said Chavira, who believes addicts should not be punished, but treated.

"The war on drugs is one thing; addiction is another," he said. "Different strategies are needed for each."

In nearby Laredo, Webb Country Sheriff Rick Flores said Mexico was hunting for solutions.

"Right off the bat, I can tell you that Mexico is trying an experiment to see how to deal with minor offenders," he said. "The Mexican bill is not as radical as it sounds, but letting drug users off the hook could actually cause a rise in other crimes."

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