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.