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Effort to modify drug certification process could benefit Mexico, cause frictions with Colombia.

WASHINGTON -- Momentum is mounting in Congress to temporarily end the annual US drug certification review process, but the effort could strain US-Colombian relations if Mexico receives special treatment.

Three bills have been introduced in the Senate that would change the US drug certification policy. One bill sponsored by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) would suspend the drug certification review process for two years for all countries. The bill has seven co-sponsors, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).

"Our intention is to see if there is some way to end what has become a stale annual debate that has not brought us any closer to mounting a credible effort to eliminate or even contain the international drug mafia," Dodd said.

The other bill, sponsored by Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), only concerns Mexico. It would allow President George W. Bush to grant Mexico a one-year waiver in judging if the country was a cooperative anti-drug partner. It has six co-sponsors.

The debate is expected to take place as early as next month when the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to hold hearings on the subject. Time is running short, however. Bush has until March 1 to certify that drug-producing and drug-transit countries are cooperating with the United States in the war on drugs. Congress then has 30 days to overturn the decision.

Bush has yet to signal what legislation he would sign, but has said he supports changing the way the United States grades other countries in fighting drugs.

Talk of eliminating the 14-year US drug certification review process has come up this year in large part because of Fox, an outspoken critic of the US drug policy. Fox has impressed several federal lawmakers with his promise to root out corruption in the Mexican government.

"I believe he has a tremendously difficult job ahead of him, so I do not want to complicate that with a fight over certification," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), a co-sponsor of Hutchison's bill.

Currently, Hutchison's bill appears to have more support and momentum in the Senate. However, favoring Mexico could complicate relations with Colombia, one of the few countries ever to run afoul of the law. The US government is spending heavily to support the government's Plan Colombia. Favoring Mexico at a time when the US effort is unpopular in Colombia could put the administration of Colombian President Andres Pastrana in an awkward position.

Passed by Congress in 1986, the US drug certification process requires the president to annually evaluate the anti-drug efforts of foreign countries and recommend economic sanctions against countries considered uncooperative.

Latin American governments call it unfair and interventionist. They say US officials do not take into account an examination of US efforts to curb drug consumption. It has become an annual farce in many respects, with countries launching high-profile campaigns designed to impress US officials in the run up to the certification every year.

Despite annual complaints about the process, few countries ever get decertified. Last year, just Afghanistan and Myanmar out of the 26 countries reviewed were decertified.

This year, say congressional observers, Bush's support and Fox's popularity might not be enough to sway the opinions of a majority in Congress, especially Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC).

A third bill, introduced by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), would also alter the certification process. But the bill, which only has one co-sponsor, has drawn less attention in Congress. Grassley, who chairs the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, wants to require the president to assess only those countries that have violated international drug enforcement standards.
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Publication:America's Insider
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 22, 2001
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