NBC News called this morning. Could they come interview me about Mexican drug decriminalization? Sure, I said, but as far as I can tell decriminalization isn’t what happened. Fine, they said, we’ll be right over.
So I made on camera pretty much the same points I’d made on the radio:
1. The new law would expand the number of police who can make drug arrests.
2. The new law would free users caught with small quantities from going to jail, but not from arrest.
3. The Federales probably weren’t in the habit of arresting users for possessing small amounts, any more than the DEA is.
4. The new law more or less tracks California law, and the law in many other states: users, if arrested, get diverted from the criminal justice system.
The reporter seemed very reluctant to believe any of this. He kept asking me what-ifs: What if the local ordinances against possession permitted by the new law don’t actually get passed? (I failed to point out that most of the Mexican border cities already have such laws.) When I pointed out that there was no reason to imagine that Vicente Fox was soft on drugs, or would want to pass a soft-on-drugs law so near the election which Felipe Calderon, his chosen successor, seems to have a real shot at winning, the reporter replied with dark suspicion that Fox was lying low, not commenting publicly on the new law. (The notion that Fox might be hiding from the U.S. media fury didn’t seem to appeal to him.)
When the reporter failed to call back as promised to let me know when the story would run, I guessed that my viewpoint hadn’t made it into the segment. I was right.
The story as it aired (scroll down to “Mexico moves to soften drug law”) was about as inflammatory as imaginable. The anchor introduced it as an account of “the outrage in this country over a decision by Mexico to make possession of some illegal drugs legal.” The correspondent, Peter Alexander, after a reference to “dangerous narcotics” and the usual grim war-on-drugs footage, reported that “in effect, the law would approve the use, in small amounts, of a dizzying array of illegal drugs.” The law, he said, was “among the most permissive in the world.”
Drug czar John Walters was shown saying that “if we are talking about legalizing drugs, that’s bad for everybody.” (That suggests Walters had doubts that the new law was legalization, but if so he wasn’t shown expressing them.) His predecessor Barry McCaffrey skipped the “if,” and opined lugubriously about the risk of “cross-border drug tourism out of the United States, to include college students.” A drug counselor from San Diego talked of the risk that San Diegans could “go across the border and buy heroin out in the open.” (How people were going to openly buy a drug it would remain a serious crime to sell wasn’t made clear.) Alexander talked of counsellors’ fears of being “swamped by a new audience of addicts.”
A lone Mexican official was shown denying that the law legalized drugs, and the view that the new law would help focus attention on traffickers was attributed to the Mexican government, but those were left as bare assertions, discredited by everything else said and shown.
This evening, under what appears to have been intense pressure from the U.S., Vicente Fox capitulated, saying that he would not sign the bill his own appointee as head of the Federales had shepherded through the Mexican Congress. It’s hard to guess whether this rather public humiliation of Fox will damage Calderon’s chances of beating Lopez Obrador; what seems certain is that none of the American drug warriors whipping up the furore had bothered to think about that question.
Since I doubted from the beginning that the new law would make much of a difference one way or the other to the size of the drug problem either in Mexico or in the U.S., I can’t say I’m especially dismayed that it will now be sent back to the Mexican Congress for redrafting. But I do continue to be dismayed by the utter unseriousness with which our politicians and journalists treat my pet issue.