Drug Policy

Does America's Drug Czar Support Decriminalization?

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Mexican President Felipe Calderon thinks people caught with small amounts of illegal drugs should go to "treatment" instead of jail. Under his proposal, anyone possessing up to two grams of marijuana or opium, half a gram of cocaine, 50 milligrams of heroin, or 40 milligrams of methamphetamine would face no criminal penalties as long as he agreed to enter treatment. Otherwise, he could get up to three and a half years in prison. U.S. drug czar John Walters says he has no problem with Calderon's plan. "I don't think that's legalization," he told The New York Times last week.

Neither do I. In fact, it's a stretch even to call Calderon's proposal "decriminalization," as the Marijuana Policy Project does in a press release tweaking Walters with the headline, "Hell Freezes Over: White House Drug Czar Backs Decriminalization." It is surely an improvement if illegal drug users don't go to prison, even if the alternative is a treatment program that may be inappropriate, ineffective, or both. Yet under Calderon's plan the threat of jail still hangs over anyone who violates the government's pharmacological taboos and is not prepared to undergo re-education, which entails identifying himself as an addict, even if he isn't, and playing the role of the drug dealer's helpless victim. Walters correctly sees that such compelled affirmation of drug war dogma, which he likens to the treatment-or-jail option offered in American "drug courts," poses little threat to current policy.

Notably, a 2006 bill that Calderon's predecessor, Vicente Fox, supported before American complaints changed his mind would have lifted criminal penalties for possessing personal-use amounts of various drugs without requiring abasement at the altar of pharmacological correctness. Shortly before Fox refused to sign the bill, a U.S. embassy spokeswoman said the Mexican government should "ensure that all persons found in possession of any quantity of illegal drugs be prosecuted or be sent into mandatory drug treatment programs." The Calderon proposal satisfies that criterion and differs little from current practice in many American jurisdictions, so it's not surprising Walters is on board.