Fri, May 05, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Fox backs down on Mexican narcotics bill, pleasing US

AP , MEXICO CITY

US officials welcomed Mexican President Vicente Fox's decision not to sign a drug decriminalization bill that some had warned could result in "drug tourism" in this country and increased availability of narcotics in US border communities.

Fox said on Wednesday he was sending the bill back to Congress for changes, just one day after his office had said he would sign into law the measure, which would have dropped criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and other drugs.

The president will ask for 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."

San Diego, California Mayor Jerry Sanders, who had said earlier he was "appalled" by the bill because it could increase drug availability north of the border, applauded Fox's decision.

"I'm glad that he's listened to the many voices opposing the bill and made changes that will make good enforcement and not legalize drugs," Sanders said. "We have been a partner with Mexico in fighting against illegal drugs, and this will only help in the long-term in that relationship."

San Diego is a short drive from the border town of Tijuana.

Earlier on Wednesday, US Embassy spokeswoman Judith Bryan said that US officials had "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."

That was apparently a reference to concern that the measure could increase drug use by border visitors and US students who flock to Mexico on vacation.

Bryan said the US 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."

Fox's statement did not mention the US criticism, but did acknowledge that the bill had been controversial.

"With sensitivity toward the opinions expressed by various sectors of society, the administration has decided to suggest changes to the content of the bill," the statement said.

On Tuesday, Fox's spokesman had called the bill "an advance" and pledged that Fox would sign it.

Congress 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 Fox a lame duck.

However, Senator 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 said. "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.

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