Mexico’s congress just passed legislation decriminalizing drug use.
Trafficking is still illegal, for obvious social reasons, but this largely unpublicized new law looks to eliminate all charges for the possession of everything from marijuana to methamphetamine.
The motion was proposed by none other than the Mexican president, Felipe Calderon.
Under the new regulation, a person caught with up to 50 milligrams of heroin — who in the past would have faced criminal charges — will instead be recommended to rehabilitation programs, and the drugs will simply be seized.
Both Calderon’s party and the opposition are showing support for the bill and — unlike a similar bill three years ago that George W. Bush helped quell — the Obama administration hasn’t kicked up a fuss.
The new legislation will redistribute law enforcement efforts to the source of drug problems, large-scale traffickers, rather than wasting manpower on users who probably need help more than anything.
In Canada, however, drug law remains hazy and the trend seems to be towards harsher punitive measures and a stealthy attempt to criminalize tobacco.
Saskatchewan has led the way by forcing tobacco products to be covered from view in stores, apparently to discourage youth from smoking, since 2002.
Conservatives point to marijuana decriminalization as opening the door for all kinds of other addictions.
But doesn’t criminal punishment just push drug use under the table? There is little social encouragement for rehabilitation in a legal culture that makes scapegoats of users.
In addition, the illegality of drug use prevents safety precautions from being imposed by the government, as are necessary for legal drugs.
Criminal status also discourages honesty with doctors, lawyers and other officials, despite clauses of privacy. Paranoia prevents people from declaring the extent of their drug use. The social and health problems that stem from lies and half-truths are a huge issue on their own.
The University of Saskatchewan, too, takes a hard-line stance on drug use, though not so clearly on, say, underage drinking. The residence smoking policy warns that if you are “caught or suspected of smoking in your room / apartment you will be subject to Residence Discipline and or evicted.”
Catch that? Mere suspicion is enough on this campus to throw a student out of their home.
Use and possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia results in “the immediate barring of the Resident from the use of the room,” as well as the rest of the residences.
Alternatively, when underage drinkers are caught they are subject minimally to “the Residence Discipline process.” This still means there is a potential for eviction, but the emphasis is clear. Suspected tobacco or drug use will be dealt with more stringently than illegal drinking.
The rules, rather than actually preventing drug use, make it more secretive, taking pot smokers off campus while allowing 17- and 18- year-olds to drink in their rooms. Not that underage drinking should be dealt with more stringently than it is, but it seems rather backwards: to throw a student’s life into tumult over drug consumption or smoking, which is exactly what immediate eviction does.
If the purpose of these rules — and of Canadian law — is to protect individuals from the damages of drugs, which is the only realistic purpose, then they are failing terribly. There is no better example of attacking symptoms rather than treating the disease.
Instead of providing potentially positive options, punitive laws simply destroy the lives of both severely addicted and casual users.
Portugal decriminalized drug use and possession in 2001, and deaths from overdose and other drug-related health problems have declined visibly. The nation uses a commission, along with fines and community service to deter those caught with drugs from falling into addiction.
The number of people seeking rehabilitation has gone up in the same period, while the numbers of drug users has not.
These progressive nations provide a bit of hope to the considerate observer. Calderon’s government will soon be better equipped to address drug cartels and end the bloody drug war raging in his country, while simultaneously providing care to addicts.
Portugal and Mexico guide the way to a healthier future. Canadian policy-makers should take note.
photo Scott Beale / Laughing Squid