Mexico’s New Drug Law Worries US Police

Mexico’s New Drug Law Worries US Police

By decriminalizing possession of small amounts of certain drugs, Mexico now has one of the world’s most liberal laws for drug users, which worries US police. The Associated Press reports that US police say the law contradicts President Felipe Calderon’s drug war, and some fear it could make Mexico a destination for drug-fueled vacations.

Tens of thousands of college students visit Cancun and Acapulco each year to celebrate spring break, and police are now concerned that they will go because they can get drugs. “For a country that has experienced thousands of deaths from warring drug cartels for many years, it defies logic why they would pass a law that will clearly encourage drug use,” said San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne.

The new law is part of a growing trend in Latin America to treat drug use as a public health problem rather than a crime and make room in overcrowded prisons for violent traffickers rather than small-time users.

Brazil and Uruguay have already eliminated jail time for people carrying small amounts of drugs for personal use, although possession is still considered a crime in Brazil. Argentina’s Supreme Court ruled out prison for pot possession on Tuesday and officials say they plan to propose a law keeping drug consumers out of the justice system. Colombia has decriminalized marijuana and cocaine for personal use, but kept penalties for other drugs.

Officials in those countries say they are not legalizing drugs—just drawing a line between users, dealers, and traffickers in the midst of a fierce drug war. Mexico’s law toughens penalties for selling drugs even as it relaxes the law against using them.

"Latin America is disappointed with the results of the current drug policies and is exploring alternatives," said Ricardo Soberon, director of the Drug Research and Human Rights Center in Lima, Peru.

Between 2002 and 2008, drug use increased by more than 50 percent in Mexico, according to the government, and prisons are filled with addicts, many under the age of 25. The new law requires officials to encourage drug users to seek treatment in lieu of jail, but the government has not allocated more money for organizations that are supposed to help them.

Supporters of the change point to Portugal, which removed jail terms for drug possession for personal use in 2001 and still has one of the lowest rates of cocaine use in Europe. Portugal’s law defines personal use as the equivalent of what one person would consume over 10 days. Police confiscate the drugs and the suspect must appear before a government commission, which reviews the person’s drug consumption patterns. Users may be fined, sent for treatment, or put on probation. Foreigners caught with drugs still face arrest in Portugal, a measure to prevent drug tourism.

The same is not true for Mexico, where there is no jail time for anyone caught with roughly four marijuana cigarettes, four lines of cocaine, 50 milligrams of heroin, 40 milligrams of methamphetamine or 0.015 milligrams of LSD.

"It provides an officially sanctioned market for the consumption of the world’s most dangerous drugs," San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said. "For the people of San Diego the risk is direct and lethal. There are those who will drive to Mexico to use drugs and return to the U.S. under their influence."

However, Don Thornhill, a retired Drug Enforcement Administration supervisor who investigated Mexican cartels for 25 years, said Mexico’s rampant drug violence will likely deter most U.S. drug users, and the new law will allow Mexican police to focus on "the bigger fish."

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