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May 5, 2006 - San Francisco Chronicle (CA)

Editorial: Onward Goes The War On Drugs

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

MEXICO WAS on the verge of executing a bold plan to decriminalize small amounts of drug possession.

Now it's not.

Mexican President Vicente Fox, who proposed the idea two years ago, backpedaled, saying he would no longer support the bill that the legislature pushed through in a last-minute effort last week.

That'll help Fox's political relationship with the United States. We doubt it'll do much for the people of Mexico.

Sixteen months ago, President Fox declared "the mother of all battles" against drug trafficking. The result has been a horrifying spate of violence -- more than 1,500 lives in the past year. It doesn't seem to be having an impact on Mexican drug cartels, which are growing in strength as Colombia's drug lords decline.

The Mexican cartels spend as much time battling each other over lucrative trade routes into the United States as they do decapitating police officers in Acapulco. Much of the problem lies with the Mexican criminal-justice system, which experts acknowledge is corrupt.

The proposal to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs was an attempt to combat these problems, not to turn Tijuana into Amsterdam. By freeing the police from running after small-time offenders, the thinking went, they would take fewer bribes and concentrate on the big fish -- drug traffickers.

The law would also have strengthened penalties for drug trafficking.

Unfortunately, the reaction of the United States was all self-involved bluster. The mayor of San Diego threatened that the proposed law could jeopardize immigration reform. Mass media hysteria broke out over the idea of American college students crossing the border to toke marijuana or snort heroin.

We hate to point out the obvious, but if American college students want to try drugs, they're doing it at home: 45.8 percent of Americans ages 12 and older report having used an illicit drug at least once, one of the highest rates in the world.

We're not arguing that decriminalization is necessarily the best answer to Mexico's problems. But clearly they've realized that the war on drugs, American-style, hasn't made drugs less available or increased the safety of their people.

A new approach is necessary -- ideally one that would include anti-corruption measures, creative enforcement strategies and the diversion of nonviolent drug offenders into treatment rather than jail.

The latter in particular, is working well for California: When the University of California at Los Angeles released its comprehensive analysis of the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act to zero fanfare last month, they found that offering nonviolent drug offenders treatment not only works, but is cost-effective.

In the 30 months following his or her arrest, the report found, the typical eligible offender had no convictions for drug, property, or violent crime. The act saved state and local governments $173.3 million over that same time period.

This is what America should have said to Mexico: New approaches can work. Hysteria can't.

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