Drug Sanity South of the Border

"Appallingly stupid" is how San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders jumped to describe the Mexican Senate's recent overwhelming approval of legislation that would, in a limited way, decriminalize the possession of small amounts of some drugs. Our city officials' knee-jerk condemnation of the bill, which District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said would send "addicts pouring onto our streets," was as predictable as it was disappointing.

Worse still was that Mexico's President Vicente Fox bowed to U.S. pressure and vetoed the legislation, which would have removed incentives for corruption and allowed law enforcement to focus their limited resources on organized and violent crime. When Mexico's legislature takes up the issue again in the fall, it should have the courage to continue drafting drug policies that are far more practical than our own.

Certainly, American and Mexican residents alike would be very concerned if, by some change of law, drugs suddenly became much more available to youth on either side of the border. But the Mexican legislation in question, which proposes to reduce (but not remove) criminal penalties for low-level drug possession, would not do that -- just as similar policies have not increased the availability of drugs in Western Europe and Canada.

Indeed, our own policies have proved much worse in this regard. Despite a $40-billion-a-year drug war, "controlled substances" are more available and cheaper than they have ever been -- in San Diego and around the United States. And, unlike alcohol, these drugs are as available to kids as to adults.

Because we enforce a drinking age on this side of the border, there is clear incentive for our youth to head south in search of alcohol (where the age limit of 18 is poorly enforced). No such incentives exist for marijuana or methamphetamine, nor would they had President Fox signed the bill this week. Why drive south and wait in line to cross the border, when you can already buy it at school or from a neighbor?

San Diego officials know how pervasive drugs are in this city, so it is disingenuous for them to oppose Mexico's legislation based on concerns about increased availability of drugs.

And yet no one is surprised that our mayor and district attorney, among others, rushed to condemn the Mexican bill last week. This is because Mexico's decision flies in the face of our national government's 30-year-old crusade to eradicate illegal drugs -- and does so very close to home. Drug war advocates say that reducing criminal penalties for possession of controlled substances is akin to admitting defeat. It sends the wrong message, they say.

But isn't it the right thing to do?

In the name of sending the right message, we have incarcerated millions of Americans over the last three decades. More people are in prison for drug charges in the United States than are incarcerated for all crimes in Western Europe, which has a larger total population. In California alone, the number of people incarcerated for drug possession quadrupled in the 12 years between 1988 and 2000, peaking at 20,116. And yet drug use remains stable.

Our fear of sending the wrong message is stopping us from implementing policies that would keep drugs away from youth and would better prevent and treat addiction. We must not be afraid to admit that drugs and drug addiction will never be eradicated. Instead, we must work toward reducing the harm that drugs cause. That means being more practical and perhaps being a little more like our neighbors to the south.


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