Mexican President Vicente Fox will sign a bill that would legalize the use of nearly every drug and narcotic sold by the same Mexican cartels he's vowed to fight during his five years in office, a spokesman said Tuesday.
The list of illegal drugs approved for personal consumption by Mexico's Congress last week is enough to make one dizzy -- or worse.
Cocaine. Heroin. LSD. Marijuana. PCP. Opium. Synthetic opiates. Mescaline. Peyote. Psilocybin mushrooms. Amphetamines. Methamphetamines.
And the per-person amounts approved for possession by anyone 18 or older could easily turn any college party into an all-nighter: half a gram of coke, a couple of Ecstasy pills, several doses of LSD, a few marijuana joints, a spoonful of heroin, 5 grams of opium and more than 2 pounds of peyote, the hallucinogenic cactus.
The law would be among the most permissive in the world, putting Mexico in the company of the Netherlands. Critics, including U.S. drug policy officials, already are worrying that it will spur a domestic addiction problem and make Mexico a narco-tourism destination.
Even the Netherlands, famous for coffeehouses that sell small quantities of potent marijuana and hashish, forbids the possession and sale of narcotics. Colombia allows personal use of marijuana, cocaine and heroin, but not LSD or PCP.
Selling drugs or using them in public still would be a crime in Mexico. Anyone possessing drugs still could be held for questioning by police, and each state could impose fines even on the permitted quantities, the bill stipulates. But it includes no imprisonment penalties.
Lawmakers who voted for decriminalization, some of whom have expressed surprise over the details of the bill, said it would for the first time empower local police to make drug arrests and allow law enforcement in general to focus on intercepting large drug shipments and major traffickers. The bill also would stiffen penalties for selling drugs near schools and authorize state and local police to detain users to check whether amounts were over the legal limit.
"The law constitutes an important step forward by the Mexican state in its battle against drug dealing," said Eduardo Medina Mora, secretary of public security and Mexico's top law enforcement officer.
Presidential spokesman Ruben Aguilar said Tuesday that Fox would sign the measure, calling it an important tool in the fight against drug trafficking. Fox has avoided public comments on the bill and did not attend a news conference about it Tuesday.
Since the vote by Congress last week, lawmakers have said they are unsure who amended the bill, originally aimed at legalizing possession of small quantities of drugs among addicts, to make it apply to all "consumers."
The Bush administration is refraining from public criticism of Mexico. But in private meetings Monday with Mexican officials in Washington, U.S. officials tried to discourage passage of the law, U.S. Embassy officials here said.
"Any country that embarks on policies that encourage drug use will get more drug use and more drug addiction," said Tom Riley, a spokesman for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
"Many countries, including the U.S. and Mexico, see the drug problem as a trafficking problem," he said. "But the real problem isn't trafficking, it's drug use. The costs of drug addiction are staggering."
Mexico has for years blamed Americans for fueling the multibillion-dollar illegal drug trade with their $10, $50 and $100 drug purchases. One cartoon here showed Uncle Sam kneeling over a map of the United States and Mexico, snorting a giant line of cocaine piled along the border.
News of the pending Mexican law spread quickly over the Internet, reaching the website of High Times, a glossy monthly magazine that features photo spreads of marijuana from around the world.
"I know I'll be booking my trip as soon as I hear the OK!" wrote "Beefy" to general agreement among his cyber peers.
Drug use by Mexicans grew as smugglers began receiving payments in drugs rather than cash from Colombian suppliers, experts say. The drug surplus triggered more local sales and use.
"There's been a big increase in addiction in recent years," said Mago Marchina of Clinica Nuevo Ser, a Tijuana drug treatment center.
Reliable figures on how many Mexicans are addicted to drugs are hard to come by, but Mexico's National Council Against Addictions has said that more than half of addicts use cocaine, and a third report hard-core marijuana use.
A growing war among rival drug gangs in Mexico -- primarily the so-called Gulf and Sinaloa cartels -- has ushered in a new era of brutality, with torture routine and bodies burned and dismembered.
More than 1,000 people have been killed in the last 18 months in fighting over smuggling routes to the United States, mostly in border cities, Acapulco and the capital. Automatic weapons and explosives are common tools; police and journalists are increasingly frequent targets.
Fox, whose term ends in December and who is barred by law from seeking reelection, has been considered a strong ally of the U.S. anti-drug effort. He has said the current drug war was triggered when he began arresting top leaders, including Osiel Cardenas, who allegedly runs the Gulf cartel from prison.
In the last year, Fox has called in the army to patrol the border city of Nuevo Laredo when it became clear that local police were in league with traffickers. And he has promised to extradite drug smugglers facing trial in the U.S.
Consequently, many U.S. officials, and Mexicans, are scratching their heads over the new law.
Mexican Sen. Jorge Zermeno, a member of Fox's National Action Party, spoke twice in support of decriminalization before the Senate's 53-26 vote Friday shortly after midnight.
He said the legislation, which Fox first proposed in 2004, was intended to allow drug possession for bona fide addicts, who would be sent to drug treatment instead of jail. But the word "consumer" was attached to the bill and won approval, broadening it to include all adults, he said.
Cecilia Sanchez and Carlos Martinez in The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.