More Pot, Less Crime

Drug laws at home and abroad


In 2006 the Bush administration pressured Mexican President Vicente Fox into withdrawing his support from a bill that would have decriminalized drug possession. So far the Obama administration, which is headed by a man who once expressed sympathy for decriminalizing marijuana, has not objected to a similar bill that the Mexican legislature quietly passed this year. Fox's successor, Felipe Calderon, is expected to sign it.

Under the bill, people caught with small amounts of illegal drugs intended for "personal and immediate use"—up to five grams of marijuana, 500 milligrams of cocaine, 40 milligrams of methamphetamine, or 50 milligrams of heroin—will not be prosecuted. Instead they will be encouraged, but not required, to enter a treatment program. 

Across the border, meanwhile, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) has introduced the Personal Use of Marijuana by Responsible Adults Act, which would eliminate federal criminalpenalties for the possession of up to three and a half ounces of marijuana or the nonprofit transfer of up to an ounce. Frank's possession limit is 20 times as generous as the marijuana maximum set by the Mexican legislature, although the practical impact of his bill is unclear, since such small-time cases typically are handled under state law.

A growing share of the American public supports liberalizing marijuana laws. For years surveys by CNN and other news organizations have found that most Americans agree pot smokers should not go to jail. In polls taken this year by Zogby, CBS News, and Rasmussen Reports, at least 40 percent of respondents went further, saying marijuana should be legalized.

Even the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, in its latest World Drug Report, says people should not be incarcerated for simple possession of drugs. The report comes close to endorsing the "creative approach" taken by Portugal, where possession for personal use triggers administrative penalties instead of criminal prosecution.