Mexico to legalize small drug amounts

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MEXICO CITY – President Vicente Fox within days will sign legislation that allows the personal use of cocaine, LSD, heroin and other drugs, his spokesman confirmed Tuesday, despite heavy criticism from the United States and within Mexico that the law will invite more problems than it intends to solve.

Spokesman Ruben Aguilar said Fox believes the measure will give authorities “a better tool” to fight drug trafficking. “It appears to be a good law,” Aguilar said.

U.S. officials are urging Fox to reconsider his approval. State Department officials in Washington met with Mexican officials Monday to stress the point.

“We urged them strongly to review the legislation to make sure it avoids the perception that drug use would be tolerated in Mexico,” said a State Department official who asked not to be identified because the measure hadn’t been signed into law.

The proposed law also has drawn the concern of the Roman Catholic Church, though church officials said they wouldn’t lobby Fox to veto it.

“The problem is that perhaps our country isn’t prepared for this type of legislation,” said Mexico City Archdiocese official Hugo Valdemar Romero.

Supporters of the law say the concerns are overblown. The proposed law would allow people to possess small amounts of drugs for personal use – 0.5 grams of cocaine, for example – freeing authorities to turn their attention from small-time drug users to large drug traffickers.

Proponents note that current Mexican law already allows charges to be dropped if a person can prove that he or she is an addict.

“The decriminalization of drugs for personal use was already in effect in Mexico,” said Hector Larios, the Senate leader for the National Action Party (PAN).

“What we’ve done now is define the quantities” that constitute personal use, he said.

Larios said tourists and others caught with drugs might still be arrested and would be released only after police have determined that the quantity of drugs they were carrying fell within the legal limits.

Under the law, people could possess 5 grams of opium, 25 milligrams of heroin, 500 milligrams of cocaine, 100 milligrams of amphetamines, 200 milligrams of methamphetamines, 0.015 milligrams of LSD and 5 grams of marijuana without facing legal sanction.

The legislation was proposed two years ago and had been passed earlier by the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Mexico’s Congress.

But the Senate’s passage of the legislation early Friday morning surprised many in Mexico, particularly because Fox’s PAN is usually identified with conservative values and the Roman Catholic Church. The Senate approved the measure 53-26, with most PAN members and members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, voting for it. Senators from the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD, opposed it.

“This is bad for us,” said Luis Arista, the administrator of the Association for Prevention and Rehabilitation, a drug and alcohol treatment center in Mexico City. Arista said he learned that the legislation had passed when a reporter asked for comment.

He said the measure is likely to increase the number of patients seeking treatment at his center.

But others disputed that the law is as far-reaching as many claim.

“This isn’t a law to decriminalize drugs,” said Sen. Marco Antonio Xicotencatl, a PAN member who voted for the measure. “In Mexico, they are still illegal.”

What the law does, Xicotencatl said, is make it easier for local and state police to detain individuals. Up to now, that had been the responsibility of federal authorities.

Under Mexican law, the legislation will go into effect three months after it’s published in Mexico’s Diario Oficial, the official government publication. Fox is likely to sign the bill this week, his office said.

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