Radio of the absurd

The question “Did Mexico just decriminalize drug possession?” ought to be logically prior to the question “Is it a good thing that Mexico just decriminalized drug possession?” But opinions are more fun than facts.

I don’t know about you, but there are moments in my life when I have the feeling I’ve wandered into a Pynchon novella. One of them occurred this morning, though this was Pynchon with a touch of Tom Wolfe or Evelyn Waugh.

Yesterday the phone rang. It was a producer from KPCC’s Air Talk, Larry Mantle’s unusually civilized and intelligent news-talk show. What did I know, she asked, about Mexico’s plan to decriminalize drug possession?

Not much, I said. I’d read the news coverage. The usual drug warriors were viewing it with alarm. It probably didn’t matter much. Several countries had decriminalized (Spain, Portugal, Italy off and on). Most of Eastern Europe never had laws against possession.

Why had Vicente Fox proposed this now? the producer asked. Maybe, I said, as an anti-corruption measure, to prevent Mexican cops from shaking down small-time drug users and get them focused on dealers.

But accounts of the new policy seemed vague and inconsistent, I said. Had anyone gotten hold of the actual text of the law, or of someone in Mexico who knew what it was about? I mentioned a couple of people who might know. The producer said she’d try to get in touch with them. Meanwhile, would I do a radio interview tomorrow (i.e., this morning) with the Mayor of San Diego and Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance? Sure, I said, but I’d be happy to be bumped in favor of someone who knew what the law was about.

After we got off the phone, I checked in with my old friend Ana Maria Salazar, a US/Mexican dual national who used to run drug policy for the Defense Department here and now is a journalist in Mexico. She filled me in on the facts.

Under current Mexican law:

1. Only the Federal Judicial Police (the “Federales”) can make drug arrests. (This is intended as an anti-corruption measure.)

2. Possession of a small quantity for personal use carries no criminal penalty; instead, the defendant is required to undergo drug treatment. But “small quantity for personal use” isn’t defined in law. Instead it determined on a case-by-case basis in court. As a result, some corrupt police and judges take bribes from dealers to classify the drugs the dealers were caught with as “personal use” amounts.

Under the new law:

1. All police will have the power to make drug arrests.

2. For each drug, a “personal use” quantity will be defined in law; any amount below that is automatically decriminalized, while any amount above that is defined as a dealer quantity.

If that’s the case, the new law is effectively tighter than the old one. In particular, turning all the local cops in Mexico loose on drug users ought to be expected to greatly increase the number of arrests, although most of those additional arrests won’t lead to jail time. But then, most current arrests of people who possess small amounts probably don’t lead to jail time.

In a second preparatory call with a different producer, and then on the air this morning, I tried to explain all of that. The host seemed to understand. But then &#8212 this was the Pynchonesque moment &#8212 the conversation went right on about whether “Mexico’s decriminalization” was a good idea or not, regardless of the fact that the new law doesn’t actually seem to decriminalize anything that used to be subject to criminal punishment, but does seem to increase a drug user’s risk of arrest by multiplying the number of police officers with the power to arrest him. We were there to talk about decriminalization, by God, and if decriminalization wasn’t actually happening that was an interesting sidelight on the story but mustn’t be allowed to interfere with the narrative, either for those who wanted to view with alarm or those who wanted to point with pride.

As it turns out, my account might have missed a crucial subtlety. The AP reports:

Currently, Mexican law allows judges the latitude of dropping charges against people caught with drugs if they can prove they are drug addicts and if an expert certifies they were caught with “the quantity necessary for personal use.”

The new bill makes the decriminalization automatic, allows “consumers” as well as addicts to have drugs, and delineates specific allowable quantities, which do not appear in the current law.

If that’s true &#8212 if the old law required the drug possessor to prove that he was an “addict” to avoid criminal penalty while the new law removes that requirement &#8212 that would be a noticeable loosening to offset the other dimensions on which the changes constitute a tightening. How noticeable would depend on how hard it currently is to make and sustain the plea of “addiction.”

In any case, the underlying weirdness of the experience remains. As I take it, the moral of the story is that in the contemporary media/political culture opinion and spin float free of mere fact.

Footnote The new Mexican law, as described, is precisely like California law: someone arrested with a small quantity of drugs is automatically eligible for diversion to a treatment program under Section 1000 of the Penal Code. Subsequent arrests for the same offense can lead to diversion to treatment under Proposition 36 or enrollment in a drug court, which is yet another variant of a diversion program. So where American enforcement agencies and politicians get off criticizing Mexico is beyond me. But that’s an old story.

Update: Same [stuff], different day.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

10 thoughts on “Radio of the absurd”

  1. Well, doggone it, Mark, if politicians can't criticize foreigners, especially foreigners who're undermining the good old USofA by sending agents to clean our swimming pools and pick our vegetables, what are they supposed to do for a living? clean swimming pools and pick vegetables?

  2. I read your post while listening to Anderson Cooper do a story on the same topic. I may just have to cancel my cable subscription.

  3. "Under the legislation, police will not penalize people for possessing up to 5 grams of marijuana, 5 grams of opium, 25 milligrams of heroin or 500 milligrams of cocaine."
    5 grams of marijuana? That's an insignificant amount. Another reason this won't really do much good.

  4. Well, no. Five grams of cannabis is somewhere between 10 and 20 joints, depending on potency.

  5. " in the contemporary media/political culture opinion and spin float free of mere fact."
    – a phenomenon oft noticed by bloggers to the right of you, on a myriad of issues.

  6. Hmmm….after 70 years of Reefer Madness, the whole thing has assumed an "underlying weirdness". Gee, who coulda guessed that would happen?
    Other than Paul Krassner, I mean.

  7. Mark,
    "Well, no. Five grams of cannabis is somewhere between 10 and 20 joints, depending on potency."
    It is slightly less than .18 Oz. It is less than a "quarter bag", a very common retail amount here in the U.S. I imagine dealers will adjust packaging to account for the law, but it is certainly defining consumer amounts in the dealer range.

  8. In the same vein, 500 milligrams is less than standard reatila amounts for cocaine, even for street deals. (I'm assuming that this is the mass of the seized quantity, not the mass of pure cocaine contained in the seized quanitity.) Like fishbande, it seems to me that amounts that would be commonly regarded as consumer amounts will not meet these standards.

  9. Then what if while he is at church he meets Jesus Christ and forms a relationship with God? Is that a bad thing? What if that is what is happening at many of the churches using these themes? I don't know if it is or not. I know it is at one or two churches I know personally. It seems there are many ways to reach people for Christ. This may not be your way, but it is a way. Don't do it if you don't like it. Just so you know, our church doesn't so I'm not getting defensive about our style being attacked or anything.

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