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U.S. drug czar: We’ll “wait and see” on Mexican decriminalization bill

A new bill approved by Mexico’s congress would effectively decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, cocaine and heroin. Under the new law, treatment programs would be suggested for the first two offences and mandated for the third. Visiting U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske seems not quite sure how to feel about it: “I guess ...

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The director of the US Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske (L), and Mexican Secretary of Health Jose Angel Cordoba, offer a press conference at the Secreatry of Health building in Mexico City, on July 28, 2009. AFP PHOTO/Luis Acosta (Photo credit should read LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images)

A new bill approved by Mexico’s congress would effectively decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, cocaine and heroin. Under the new law, treatment programs would be suggested for the first two offences and mandated for the third. Visiting U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske seems not quite sure how to feel about it:

A new bill approved by Mexico’s congress would effectively decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, cocaine and heroin. Under the new law, treatment programs would be suggested for the first two offences and mandated for the third. Visiting U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske seems not quite sure how to feel about it:

“I guess if I was looking at it strictly from our viewpoint, the use of the government as a strong sanction is often pretty helpful in getting people into treatment,” said Kerlikowske, who heads the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy. “If the sanction becomes completely nonexistent I think that would be a concern, but I actually didn’t read quite that level of de-facto (decriminalization) in the law.”

“I would actually give this a bit of a wait and see attitude,” said Kerlikowske. “I’ve always found about laws, whether they’ve been enacted by states or our own federal government, is that it is the application and the use of the law and how it’s actually done” are key.

Kerlikowske was much more enthusiastic about Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s tougher proposal, which would mandate treatment for first offenders through special drug courts. Still, the fact that a U.S. drug czar is this open to any decriminalization program from its drug-war ally, does seem significant. The United States publicly criticized a similar bill in 2006.

Kerlikowske disappointed marijuana legalization advocates last week by saying, “Legalization is not in the president’s vocabulary, and it’s not in mine.” But Kerlikowske has previously explained that he does not in any way support legalization, but favors a treatment model over a law-enforcement approach. 

The question is whether the drug czar is going to back up his rhetoric with any real reform, especially at a time when the Obama administration has little political capital to spare. His measured response to the Mexican bill and presence at the release of a UN report, which praises Portugal’s decriminalization program, may indicate that he’s dipping his toe into this debate while making it very clear that legalization is out of the question. 

For now, drug law reform advocates will probably have to take a “wait and see attitude” toward him as well. 

UIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating

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