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Another casualty of the war on drugs

Pressure from Washington helped derail Mexico's enlightened attempt to reform its drug laws.

May 12, 2006|Brian Doherty | BRIAN DOHERTY is a senior editor at Reason magazine and the author of "This is Burning Man."

THE RISE AND FALL of Mexican drug-law reform over the last two weeks has been, for drug legalizers, a dizzying high followed by a painfully abrupt crash. U.S. drug authorities laid down their usual bummer: No user is going to get off easy on their watch. And thanks to the United States' overwhelming power and influence, their watch extends everywhere.

Mexico isn't the first nation to suffer side effects from America's estimated $30-billion-a-year drug war. A 2003 attempt by former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien to liberalize drug possession laws met with threats from U.S. drug czar John Walters that the tougher resulting border security could hold up U.S.-Canadian trade, and the idea soon went up in smoke. Colombia has been for years the site of what is essentially a damaging and expensive proxy war in the service of the United States' delusion that it can wipe out cocaine production.

Still, both cops and heads must have been hallucinating if they thought Mexico's mild reform proposals would have ushered in some kind of lotus-eaters' utopia, a permanent Altered State down Mexico way.

The legislation, which passed Mexico's House and Senate with President Vicente Fox's initial support, would have legalized the possession of minute quantities of substances such as pot, cocaine and heroin (5 grams of pot, 0.5 grams of cocaine -- only a few lines -- and 25 milligrams of heroin), in an attempt to focus drug-enforcement resources on larger-scale dealers. But sales, and possession beyond the tiniest weekend's worth, would have remained illegal. State and local cops would have been dragged into a Mexican drug war that had heretofore been federal, increasing the total resources spent on drug enforcement -- and introducing more cops to the lure of drug-money corruption.

Even before this policy, you could beat a possession rap by convincing a Mexican judge that you're an addict. The quantities allowed under that definition have been undefined; the new law would have defined them, in an effort to eliminate judicial corruption.

As the bill came perilously close to receiving Fox's signature, White House drug officials raised the fear that Mexican border towns would become out-of-control party towns for thrill-seeking U.S. youth. (What else is new?) Border city cops spouted nonsense about how the new policy would lead to unmanageably rowdy public chaos, as if potheads and junkies are an energetic bunch, or as if any substance creates more troublesome public inebriation than already available alcohol. Because sales still would have been illegal under the new law, warnings by U.S. officials -- from the mayor of San Diego to the spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy -- that the proposal would have led to a drugged-out free-for-all just don't fly.

Trade in other commodities, even damaging ones such as cancer-causing cigarettes or obesity-triggering sugary soft drinks, doesn't generate the rampant violence and corruption of the illegal drug business. The ugly side of drug trafficking isn't inherent in the drugs. It arises because illegal businesses by definition demand artificially high profits, lack peaceful institutions for settling disputes (if you can't take your opponent to court when you feel ripped off, you might feel more compelled to shoot) and attract risk-seeking, violence-prone types to begin with.

When drugs are outlawed, only outlaws deal drugs. If it weren't illegal, the sale of narcotics would be no more prone to violence and corruption than the sale of cola or cigarettes.

Reform far more radical than what Mexico contemplated would drastically reduce, not exacerbate, the serious problems associated with drug-law enforcement.

WE ARE fortunate enough not to have rebel armies funded by profits from the illegal coca market within our borders. And we can afford not to care about the thousands of murders a year and dangerously rampant police corruption in Mexico caused by the drug laws we refuse to let it change.

Americans angry about Mexican immigration complain that the country is exporting its troubles to us. In fact, with our drug-war bullying, we're exporting our enforcement troubles back to Mexico, adding to the problems that make so many people want to come here to begin with.

The White House's disproportionate panic can't be explained by any actual damage the law could have caused. Maybe U.S. drug warriors realized that if we saw firsthand, right across the border, just how unnecessary are the laws against drug possession, the futility of making 1.7 million drug arrests each year would be exposed, and that's never a happy thought for any bureaucrat. In Amsterdam, where pot, hash and mushrooms can be sold freely in certain shops, surveyed use of most drugs is lower than in the United States, illustrating that legalization does not equal everyone getting high. The social order still stands.

Experienced drug users have an ethic: You don't force other people on your trip against their will. Pity that U.S. drug policymakers can't be that sensible.

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