South of the border, where drug policy makes sense
On Aug. 20, Mexico for a few days became the most enlightened nation in the western hemisphere regarding drug policy. That day, a law took effect decriminalizing possession of small quantities of drugs. All drugs. South of the border you can carry up to 5 grams of marijuana (four joints' worth), half a gram of cocaine, 50 milligrams of heroin, 40 milligrams of meth and 0.015 milligrams of LSD and be on the safe side of the law.
Five days later, Argentina's Supreme Court decriminalized drug possession for personal use. The court unanimously ruled that punishment for drug use contradicts Article 19 of the country's constitution. The unnecessary deference to God aside, the article would make a nice 28th amendment to our own Constitution: "The private actions of men which in no way offend public order or morality, nor injure a third party, are only reserved to God and are exempted from the authority of judges."
In early September, it was the Colombian Supreme Court's turn. Drug use "generates in a person problems of addiction and slavery that turn one into a sick, compulsive individual deserving of therapeutic medical treatment instead of a punishment," the Colombian court ruled. Brazil and Ecuador may be next with decriminalization.
Meanwhile, the best Americans have come up with is to attempt local reprisals of Jimmy Carter's timid and failed attempt in 1977 to convince Congress to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, but still punish possession with fines. Florida State University's branch of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy is floating a ballot amendment to decrease marijuana violations in Tallahassee to a ticket and a $100 fine for possession of less than 20 grams. It's an honorable try, but still a world of good sense away from the better examples down south.
I imagine the reaction to Latin America's trend might elicit sneers from those who -- prejudices against brown-skinned neighbors notwithstanding -- consider drug-riddled cultures such as Colombia's and Mexico's poor references for drug policy. The sneers are misplaced. The proportion of drug addicts in the United States is the same as Mexico's and higher than in the rest of Latin America. When prescription medication is included, Americans are world champions in pill-popping. And Latin America is mirroring European trends. Drug possession in most European nations is still officially banned, but rarely punished.
Traffickers are another story, though it begs the question: If drug possession is legal, why should it be illegal to sell? It shouldn't. That's where state regulation steps in, as it does with other drugs and stimulants. Narcotics, like alcohol, tobacco, coffee and sugar, can be addictive. But by far more people suffer debilitating illnesses and abbreviated lives from, say, diabetes, which is commonly exacerbated by sugar abuse, than from the hardest drugs. Punishing drug use is an imposition of outdated morals and state power where only state regulation and taxes should have a role.
A California assemblyman introduced a bill that would levy a $50 tax on an ounce of marijuana. If enacted, the measure would add $1.3 billion to California's coffers. Florida could immediately diminish its chronic budget problems if it applied the same reasoned reforms to drug laws. Taxing drugs could raise close to $1 billion a year and save more by reforming state drug laws, among the nation's most draconian. In Florida, 160,000 people are in prisons and jails. About one-fifth is imprisoned on drug charges, costing state and county governments $640 million a year. Even if many of the offenders are violent traffickers who should be in prison, hundreds of millions of dollars are wasted on drug-related law enforcement and on imprisoning non-violent individuals who should be in their communities earning money and paying taxes.
Democrats and Republicans have mustered more bipartisanship for the "war on drugs" since Richard Nixon declared it in 1969 than they did for the cold war or than they do for the "war on terror" or the war on universal health insurance. It's a $50 billion-a-year government business (approaching $1 trillion since 1969), a tax-funded mirror of the drug trade's lucrative market. Schools too often dutifully spread misinformation through their "Red Ribbon Week" and "DARE" programs. Lazy and uncritical news media buddy up to cops for the same old scripts of drug busts and cleaned up neighborhoods. Cops are grateful for the publicity and job security. And nothing changes. Nothing will, either, until the lessons of Latin America and Europe begin to replace America's ruinous, 40-year addiction to the war on drugs.
22 November 2009
By PIERRE TRISTAM