Drug Policy

Mexico on the Verge of Decriminalizing Drug Possession

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The Mexican legislature has quietly approved a bill, supported by President Felipe Calderon, that will decriminalize possession of illegal drugs in small amounts. Calderon's predecessor, Vicente Fox, planned to sign a similar bill until pressure from the Bush administration led him to reconsider. The Obama administration apparently has not raised a fuss about the current bill, which Calderon is expected to sign any day now. The Los Angeles Times reports that the bill's opponents worry that Mexican cities will "become Latin Amsterdams, flooded by drug users seeking penalty-free tokes and toots." Since the Mexican government does not plan to copy the Dutch policy of tolerating the open distribution of "soft drugs," that scenario seems implausible (although you might think Mexico would welcome more tourists, especially given the negative publicity generated by recent prohibition-related violence). At the same time, more lenient treatment of drug users, while certainly an improvement, does nothing to address the violence, corruption, and disorder associated with the illegal drug trade.

The Times says Calderon's strategy is to "distinguish between small-time users and big-time dealers, while re-targeting major crime-fighting resources away from the former and toward the latter and their drug-lord bosses." The secretary general of Mexico's National Institute of Penal Sciences tells the Times:

The important thing is…that consumers are not treated as criminals. It is a public-health problem, not a penal problem.

If consumers should not be treated as criminals, presumably because drug use is not a crime, why should the people who merely aid and abet this noncrime be treated as criminals? The traditional response is that drug users are victims of drug dealers, who get them hooked on products that override their ability to choose. As I argue in my book Saying Yes, this is a misleading description of addiction, which in any event is not the typical outcome of illegal drug use. If drug users are victims of drug dealers, rather than consumers whose demand creates the market that the drug dealers serve, then it is equally true that drinkers are victims of distillers, brewers, vintners, and bartenders. And if Mexican-style decriminalization had been the American government's response to the problems associated with alcohol prohibition, it would have amounted to doing nothing, since simple possession and consumption of alcohol, as opposed to production and distribution, was not banned by the 18th Amendment or the Volstead Act. 

In a recent column, I pointed out that the "drug-related" violence in Mexico is due not to drugs (or guns) but to prohibition. In February I discussed the drug policy prescriptions of three former Latin American presidents who perceive the problems created by the war on drugs but, like Calderon, are not quite ready to call it off. In March I noted that the medical/public health model they advocate is not necessarily inconsistent with prohibition.

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  1. Preemptively shut the fuck up, LoneWacko.

  2. Incremental improvements like this will hopefully make life better for a significant number of drug users, but from a strictly utilitarian perspective, I worry that they will dull the sting of prohibition enough to postpone comprehensive reform. The “public health” approach is palatable enough to people, while still allowing for a lot of state control of private behavior.

  3. This is a step in the correct direction. In order to reduce violence, drug users should be sentenced to treatment and community service instead of jail for first time offences.

  4. And we all know what a violent place Amsterdam is…

  5. Also, I should really starting reading the LAT for stuff like “…penalty-free tokes and toots” alone.

  6. Governments are realizing the futility and expense of the drug war, but they so badly don’t want to give up the extraordinary power and control they gain from it. That’s why they’re trying these half-ass measures. They save money on not throwing petty users in jail, but they still get to do raids and hassle people and fund lots of police. Very little changes.

  7. Don’t people already go to Mexico for (more or less) penalty free tokes and toots?

  8. drug users should be sentenced to treatment and community service instead of jail for first time offences

    Why? For their own good…? The vast majority of drug users are doing no harm to *themselves*, let alone anyone else.

  9. Franklin should be sentenced to treatment and community service (and maybe water-boarding) for being a pathetic troll which is far worse for society than snorting a line now and then.

  10. And while every other civilized nation moves towards legalization/regulation, America, holding on to it’s beloved prohibition, continues to behave like a foolish drunken giant who doesn’t realize that he keeps shooting himself in the foot.

  11. PS. 60 Minutes repeated their interview with Napolitano last night re: Mexico, and like the first time I was shaking with rage at what our drug war has done. The body count is unbelievable. And of course there was no questioning of the underlying assumption that these corpses piling up is the price we pay to keep drugs slightly harder to get out of our country.

  12. Epi
    I really don’t think it has much to do with government wanting this or that power (though they certainly won’t turn them down). I think the government is sadly just representing the public here. A lot of people still have some bizarre ideas about “drugs.” They are worried that Reefer Madness-like crack zombies are strolling streets near their homes just waiting to break in and scoop out their brains. Also, big business hates drugs because it fears how it will depress productivity. “Drugs are bad” has been sold and sold, and for many dull-heads who are afraid of anyting they don’t know about and which seems strange there was never much selling needed…

  13. Mexico is stuck between a rock (intrusive US foreign policy) and a hard place (violent drug dealers)

    Neither of whom are particularly anxious for legalization.

    Is there a study about the efficiency of affirmative action versus the illegal drug trade for providing wealth creation opportunities to minorities? (I.E. would legalization be, as I suspect, worse for minorities’ incomes than ending affirmative action?)

  14. Does this mean that, like, the drug traffic will start flowing south ‘n stuff?

  15. “Drugs are bad” has been sold and sold

    Who sold that idea in the first place, MNG? The government.

  16. The Obama administration apparently has not raised a fuss about the current bill

    Why does Obama’s administration seem to be run by strategically timed PR moves, rather than consistent (smart or otherwise) policy?

  17. “Who sold that idea in the first place, MNG? The government.”

    At a lot of people’s urging Epi…

  18. whether the government is reflective or representative of the body politic is irrelevant. Sentiment against TARP and the Stimulus are high…and yet those got rammed through anyway.

    Unfortunately, leadership, for good or for ill, has been abandoned in favor of craven, chickenshit and slavish adherence to the polls. If the President got on television tomorrow and said “hey, we need to reconsider this drug stuff”, you might have some resistance, but most people would take their cues and change their opinions accordingly.

  19. PS. 60 Minutes repeated their interview with Napolitano last night re: Mexico, and like the first time I was shaking with rage at what our drug war has done. The body count is unbelievable. And of course there was no questioning of the underlying assumption that these corpses piling up is the price we pay to keep drugs slightly harder to get out of our country.

    I was flipping through the channels and caught part of that segment where Anderson Cooper repeated the 90% of all guns come from the Us mantra. However, it wasn’t by mistake that he made the mistake, he knew what he was doing as demonstrated by how the segment was set up as devious propaganda. The video showed confescated weapons, grenades, submachineguns, lot of milatary hardware, he stated the line, and then once this was established as a factoid, he went on to link it to the ending of the ‘assault’ weapons band. Mr. and Mrs. Not Very Well Informed America gets the message — violence in Mexico is escalating because we ended the ‘assault’ weapons band.

    It would be laughable if it wasn’t so Goddamned destructive.

  20. Great.

    Now we are going to need a bigger fence to keep the drugs out as well.

  21. Also, big business hates drugs because it fears how it will depress productivity.

    I don’t think most businesses are all that worried, actually. Employer drug testing is decreasing, presumably because any productivity gains aren’t outweighing the cost of the tests themselves.

  22. TAO
    I think you’d find that interest groups do a lot to create both public and government opinion.

  23. Of course, I never said that they don’t. I think that public-choice theory does an OK job of explaining how and why a certain government did in the past, but I do not think it should dictate future actions.

    Also, interest groups take their cues from the direction a Congress or an Administration are taking. In other words, KBR didn’t cause the Iraq war, but they sure didn’t sit around when they heard it was going to happen. But that doesn’t make the Iraq War KBR’s responsibility. “Bush as leader” is the main agent for that action, and “Obama as leader” could do a lot more to further his goals, too.

    I just wonder when the President is going to show up to work.

  24. Also, big business hates drugs because it fears how it will depress productivity.

    Holy cow, did MNG just cite an issue on which libertarians disagree with big business? I better look out the window to see if frozen pigs are flying out of hell right now.

  25. That reminds me: it wasn’t interest groups that made drug-testing de riguer, and you’ll note that it’s usually the lower-classes who are subjected to these indignities. Although I don’t know, I would wager that introductory drug testing and random ones thereafter started with the military/government.

  26. It would be irrational for government actors to act in ways that would undermine their positions. Coming out against drug laws would mean that law enforcement, religious, business, etc., organizations would mobilize against that person. Talking heads would berate that person. They would lose campaign funding, press support, popular support, and then manybe their jobs…Government actors are not some entity apart from society, sadly they represent it…

  27. “it wasn’t interest groups that made drug-testing de riguer, and you’ll note that it’s usually the lower-classes who are subjected to these indignities.”

    That strikes me as plainly wrong. Private organizations have a stake in drug testing. They certainly wanted to do it. They may have had to wait for the green light from court cases and such, but as few companies want their employees using drugs there would have been no reason for them to not ask the government to make this happen.

  28. It can “strike” you as wrong all you like, but the fact is, is that DUI and military drug-testing are what created the drug-testing monster we see today. See generally the history of DUI law and the USS Nimitz in 1981.

    Look, it is not irrational for government actors to “act” counter to their interests. That’s what leadership is supposed to be about. What was the public support for integration of the Armed Forces when Truman did it? Hint: very low.

    On the other hand, what’s the public level of support for ending DADT, for example? Hint: very high.

    So what changed? It wasn’t interest groups, much as you would like the shift the blame to them.

  29. Truman took a hit for that too, a big chunk of his party walked out on him and supported Thurmond. He nearly lost his job.

    I’d like to see Obama do something heroic like that, but he’s got a lot to contend with and he doesn’t want himself or his party out of power soon…

  30. DADT is a perfect example. If it is so popular, why wouldnt politicians in a democracy embrace it?

    They know that some organized groups will make them pay for it because for some groups this issue is a prime one; though there may be broad support to end it it is not deep…

  31. Yeah, I’ve heard the “just hang on” argument. It came from my Republican friends. “Bush is going to reform Social Security/cut the debt and deficit/cut spending. Just wait!”

    Excuses, excuses. Reaganomics wasn’t exactly done with vast popular support or a compliant congress, either. And here, Obama has both and still doesn’t stop, for example, raiding MMJ dispensaries.

  32. Oh geez, the apologia continues apace. Government leaders are frozen because they are ascared of talking heads.

    Look, what’s the point of becoming a leader in government if, once you get there, you’re too much of a coward to do what got you there in the first place?

    Liberalizing the drug war, scaling down Iraq, ending DADT, etc. etc. are not going to sink Obama for a second term. The Republicans have nobody…I mean, absolutely nobody waiting in the wings for the next election. The Ds have 60 seats in the House. Obama is still very popular.

    So what the fuck are they waiting for?

  33. *60 seats in the Senate.

  34. It doesn’t take much to swing election percentages 5-10% points in a few states, and were that to happen, no Obama re-election. “Leadership” on drug legalization would result in FOP’s, chambers of commerce, churches, etc., around the country denouncing the guy. The criticisms would come not just from National Review and Heritage but from Brookings and the WaPo…This is how public opinion is shaped…

  35. A majority of people still think MARIJUANA should be illegal!

    http://www.albany.edu/sourcebook/pdf/t2672005.pdf

  36. National Review is on record as opposing the Drug War, I believe.

    hey, you can apologize for the guy all you want, MNG, but public opinion can and frequently has been shaped by positive government action that was ahead of the curve.

    Anyway, like I said, leadership isn’t supposed to be about quaking every time Qunnipac releases another poll. You’ll note that California is proceeding with marijuana legalization despite public opinion on the subject. In our state, our governor (for the money, natch) switched his position on slot machines and I’ll just bet that, despite the “polls”, it’s going to be approved at the ballot box.

  37. That strikes me as plainly wrong. Private organizations have a stake in drug testing. They certainly wanted to do it. They may have had to wait for the green light from court cases and such, but as few companies want their employees using drugs there would have been no reason for them to not ask the government to make this happen.

    That strikes me as plainly wrong. It seems the private companies most likely to test are the ones required and/or pressured to do so because of their government contracts. The companies I’ve worked for that had no federal contracts never tested me. The ones that did did. I doubt this is a coincidence. Further, I am pretty sure most private companies would quickly realize that drug testing is not at all a cost effective way of increasing worker productivity and would abandon it as a waste of money even if they initially wanted to do it.

    While there is certainly an interest in having your workers productive, without a direct link between drug testing and productivity no private company would continue wasting money on it without some much stronger outside incentive than merely “not wanting their workers to use drugs.”

  38. On the DADT issue:

    Shoot, the President doesn’t even have to work for its repeal. All he has to do is order that it not be enforced and stop-loss anybody who has been implicated by the policy. He can even cloak it in the (exceptionally true) justification that we shouldn’t be throwing out talented officers, Arab-language translators and patriotic heroes during a time of war.

    There. Argument ended. But he won’t even do that.

  39. Unless you’re Helen Keller, it’s pretty obvious that marijuana IS legal in Calfornia and has been for many years.

    Anyone with a paper cut can get a doctor’s recommendation and buy weed without any sort of physical risk, apart from finding a parking place.

    So, lets look around and see all the dire effects! The anarchy! The murdered corpses stacked up on street corners, the 100% worker absenteesim, the abandoned businesses!

    The problem is no politician has the guts to tell people “Look, you’ve been living with legal weed for the past ten years and nothing bad has happened. So go worry about something that REALLY matters, you morons.”

    Of course, they might phrase it more tactfully than I did…

  40. Frankly, I take almost no stock in polls that ask questions that require more complicated answers than “Yes” or “no” or a range of simple options.

    For example: polls on “who are you voting for?” That’s easy. “I’m voting for Obama/McCain/Barr”

    On the other hand, polls that ask “Do you support the legalization of marijuana” do nothing for me. For one, I don’t know what value the answerer attaches to the policy. He might think that marijuana should not be legalized, but he’s not going to burn down the Capitol if it does. On the other hand, someone who thinks it should be legalized might be thinking “well, as long as there are treatment options and people can get help for their ‘addiction’ to drugs…sure”. But there’s no level of nuance in that either.

  41. Liberalizing the drug war, scaling down Iraq, ending DADT, etc. etc. are not going to sink Obama for a second term. The Republicans have nobody…I mean, absolutely nobody waiting in the wings for the next election. The Ds have 60 seats in the House. Obama is still very popular.

    QFT! The Chosen One? is instead hitching his star to nationalized health care.

  42. Even if you want to appeal to the polls, how can the Obama Administration not heed the 75% of Americans who wouldn’t mind seeing DADT repealed?

  43. I would like to alert DHS to the first 3 words of TAO’s comment at 3:21. That is all.

  44. Private organizations have a stake in drug testing. They certainly wanted to do it.

    I don’t think I buy that. I think the only reason many companies voluntarily did it is because the mood at the time was even more hysterically drug’re-bad than today, if that’s possible to believe. In other words, they did it draw more customers. Why do you think they put those “WE DRUG TEST!!11!1” signs out front for all to see.

  45. Fine. Legalize drugs. I really don’t care.

    However, could we please refrain from the crap about them being taxed and that the government would control them? Is there a better way to screw up a good idea?

  46. If consumers should not be treated as criminals, presumably because drug use is not a crime, why should the people who merely aid and abet this noncrime be treated as criminals?

    As in any business, the consumers out number the dealers. Groups tend to get a worse deal from a government when they contain fewer members.

  47. Businesses care when they can be sued after an accident for negligence because an employee has ever used a drug because the worker that caused the accident was high.

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