MEXICO CITY — Mexican President Vicente Fox refused to sign a drug decriminalization bill Wednesday, hours after U.S. officials warned the plan could encourage “drug tourism.”
Fox sent the measure back to Congress for changes, but his office did not mention the U.S. criticism.
“Without underestimating the progress made on the issue, and with sensitivity toward the opinions expressed by various sectors of society, the administration has decided to suggest changes,” according to a statement from his office.
Fox said he will ask “Congress to make the needed corrections to make it absolutely clear in our country, the possession of drugs and their consumption are, and will continue to be, a criminal offense.”
On Tuesday, Fox’s spokesman had called the bill “an advance” and pledged the president would sign it. But the measure, passed Friday by Congress, drew a storm of criticism because it eliminates criminal penalties possession of small amounts of heroin, methamphetamines and PCP, as well as marijuana and cocaine.
U.S. government in rare objection
Weighing in, the U.S. government Wednesday expressed a rare public objection to an internal Mexican political development, saying anyone caught with illegal drugs in Mexico should be prosecuted or given mandatory drug treatment.
“U.S. officials ... urged Mexican representatives to review the legislation urgently, to avoid the perception that drug use would be tolerated in Mexico, and to prevent drug tourism,” U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Judith Bryan said.
There are concerns the measure could increase drug use by border visitors and U.S. students who flock to Mexico on vacation.
Bryan said the U.S. government wants Mexico “to ensure that all persons found in possession of any quantity of illegal drugs be prosecuted or be sent into mandatory drug treatment programs.”
New Congress, new elections
The legislature has adjourned for the summer, and when it comes back, it will have an entirely new lower house and one-third new Senate members following the July 2 elections, which will also make the outgoing Fox a lame duck.
However, Sen. Jorge Zermeno, of Fox’s conservative National Action Party — a supporter of the bill — said he thought Congress would be open to changing the legislation to delete a clause that extends to all “consumers” the exemption from prosecution that was originally meant to cover only recognized drug addicts.
“The word ’consumer’ can be eliminated so that the only exemption clause would be for drug addicts,” Zermeno told The Associated Press. “There’s still time to get this through.”
The bill contained many points that experts said were positive: it empowered state and local police — not just federal officers — to go after drug dealers, stiffened some penalties and closed loopholes that dealers had long used to escape prosecution.
But the broad decriminalization clause was what soured many — both in Mexico and abroad — to the proposal.
Rite of passage for U.S. teens
Hard-partying U.S. teens and college students have long crossed the Rio Grande to knock back cheap beers and tequila shots in Mexico away from the watchful gaze of parents, teachers and police.
“When I heard the news I said, ‘Mexico is going to be the new Amsterdam,’” said Texan student Matthew Flores, 23, in reference to the Dutch city where liberal narcotics laws attract drug tourists from across Europe. “People will now be able to go over the border, maybe smoke a doobie (marijuana cigarette) and hang out, and it won’t be a big deal.”
But authorities in Mexico’s Baja California state estimate that as many as one in eight people there already abuse narcotics. They say 98 percent of crimes committed in the gritty border city of Tijuana are carried out by drug users, and that they would look at possible ways to get around the law if passed.
“As it is, there are fights and public order problems caused by young people who come here to party,” policewoman Ana Lilia Ortega said in Reynosa, a sweltering Mexican border city with gaudy bars and strip clubs south of McAllen.
“They come to have a few drinks and some tequilas, and now with drugs on top we’re not going to be able to control it.”
North of the border ...
In El Paso, Texas, a non-profit group that seeks to crack down on bingeing by local youngsters who cross the border to Ciudad Juarez, in Mexico, says loosening drug laws would deepen the already existing problem.
“It’s already a concern that teenagers and college-age kids go to Juarez to drink, and I’m worried they are going to be encouraged to try harder drugs because it won’t be against the law,” said Marge Bartoletti, the director of the Rio Grande Safe Communities Coalition.
“My fear is we’re going to see overdoses and more trips to the emergency room, and an increase in preventable traffic accidents as kids are now going to be coming back high” she added.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.