Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Drug "decriminalization" or legalization, it's all the same at the end of the day

MGR Opinion - Clever and creative nomenclature doesn't alter the bottom line

This isn't an op-ed about whether drugs - any type of drugs - should be removed from the list of things prohibited to mankind in Mexico or Mauritania or Marrakech or places in between. I'm not about to get into that debate, as any number of journalists (and not a few politicians) have of late. In my judgment, there will never be substantial agreement on the subject. Indeed, there will always be profound disagreement. It's an issue which separates people by their very nature, rather like the universal question of whether a hot dog is best consumed dressed out in mustard or ketchup, and with or without onions.

This is an article, you might say, about etymology - the study of words and their (mis)use.

First, an acknowledgment. I don't support the legalization or decriminalization of drugs (I use the term generically), even marijuana. This, even though I came of age in an era when the waft of acrid, burning cannabis at many a dorm party was as penetrating as the aroma of my fresh espresso at Starbucks. Which, incidentally, is the only drug I need to get my brain jump-started and my fingers flying across the keyboard, day or night. (I admit, I'm a severe caffeine addict.)

I practiced law in the United States from 1977 to 2010, and a substantial part of my professional experience was in criminal defense. Drug cases never particularly interested me - even the most mundane homicide prosecution is generally more interesting - but I handled my share nonetheless. So I'm quite familiar with claimed differences between the competing concepts of legalization and decriminalization.

Here's the truth: there isn't a hill of beans difference. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

For at least 30 years decriminalization has been a table topic in the U.S. - particularly at the local level, in city and county prosecutions. The idea is that if someone shows up in court charged with possession of a joint (is that the correct term, or am I dating myself?), he or she pays a modest fine and quickly passes through the revolving door. Much like an illegal parking citation, no real criminal record attaches to the process. The decriminalized possession of marijuana would be called City of Denver vs. John Doe, just as failing to drop enough coins in the meter was called City of Olathe vs. Edward V. Byrne (oops, more than once). But neither, properly speaking, would be/was a criminal case with all the burdensome and often long term consequences of such.

Could "decriminalization" be applied to the scourge of international drug trafficking? I wonder how it all might work in real practice. For example, would the elusive Sinaloa Cartel boss El Chapo Guzmán appear at Culiacán City Hall to pay a civil fine after one of his drivers is ticketed for exceeding the speed limit by 20 kph, and incidentally, for those 75 kilos of marijuana bricks neatly tucked under the tarp in the rear bed of that sparkling new Ford Ranger? Or would the local Los Zetas office manager in Playa del Carmen stop by Juzgado Penal No. 2 to answer a municipal summons for the plastic bags of Colombian cocaine which those irresponsible delivery boys left unattended on a public beach?

If you support the legalization of drugs, say so loudly and clearly. Don't dance around the issue like Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina did yesterday, and as not a few in the United States have done, by disingenuously calling for "decriminalization." Discuss the idea, debate the idea, but don't re-market it under a deliberately misleading brand name. Last week president Felipe Calderón told a group of Mexican young people that drugs represent the "new slavery of the 21st century." I happen to agree with those sentiments. To those who want to give a formal legal blessing to that new slavery, at least have the common courtesy to tell us so.

That's the way I see it. By the way, about those hot dogs. Make mine with mustard, please. The very idea of putting ketchup on a perro caliente is absurd. And hold the onions.

Aug. 29, 2013 - U.S. hypocrisy on legalization poses the question: who is committed to drug war?
Mar. 15, 2013 - Kansas says: wherever you got the green leafy stuff, it's still illegal in Sunflower State
Nov. 8, 2012 - Mexico's incoming PRI government pays little attention to U.S. marijuana legalization

Mitt Romney talks tough on U.S. drug demand
Obama says U.S. drug demand is responsible for Latin drug violence
Feds ready to bust California pot distributors
Americans like to get stoned

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