Pubdate: Sun, 06 Jan 2013
Source: Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
Copyright: 2013 Sun-Sentinel Company
Author: Richard Fausset, Tribune Newspapers
Page: 14A


U.S. Ballots on Legalization Could Have Ripple Effect

MEXICO CITY - Forgive the Mexicans for trying to get this straight:

So now the United States, which has spent decades battling Mexican
marijuana, is on a legalization bender?

The same United States that long viewed cannabis as a menace, funding
crop poisoning programs, tearing up auto bodies at the border, and
deploying sniffer dogs, fiber-optic scopes and backscatter X-ray
machines to detect the lowly weed?

The success of legalization initiatives in Colorado and Washington in
November has sparked a new conversation in a nation that is one of the
world's top marijuana growers: Should Mexico, which has suffered
mightily in its war against the deadly drug cartels, follow the two
U.S. states' lead?

Mexico's new president, Enrique Pena Nieto, opposes legalization, but
he also told CNN recently that the news from Washington and Colorado
"could bring us to rethinking the strategy."

Such rethinking has already begun. Shortly after the approval of the
U.S. ballot measures, the governor of Colima, Mario Anguiano, floated
the idea of a legalization referendum for his small coastal state.

In the Mexican Congress, Fernando Belaunzaran, a lawmaker with the
leftwing Democratic Revolution Party, has introduced a national
legalization bill. The cartels probably derive 20 to 25 percent of
their drug export revenue from marijuana, and Belaunzaran contends
that legalization will eat into the profit that allows the cartels to
buy the advanced weapons that are the cause of much bloodshed.

"It's a matter of life or death," Belaunzaran said in a recent news
conference. "And after 60,000 deceased (an estimate of the death toll
in the six-year war against the cartels), no one can say that it isn't
essential to Mexicans' lives."

Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera called for a national
legalization forum a month before the Colorado and Washington votes.
Since then, a number of prominent Mexican voices have questioned the
wisdom of following the strict prohibitionist policies still favored
by the U.S. government when many Americans at state and local levels
have rejected those policies at the ballot box.

At this point, there is limited public support for legalization here.
A poll released in November indicated 79 percent of Mexicans remained
opposed to the idea. By comparison, a Gallup poll released last month
showed 50 percent of U.S. residents against legalization and 48
percent in favor.

The fact that the Mexican public is generally less enthusiastic about
legalization comes as no surprise to Isaac Campos, a historian at the
University of Cincinnati, who said conservative attitudes on drug use
have deep roots in Mexico.

Mexico, he says in a book published in April, outlawed marijuana in
1920, 17 years before the U.S. did, and Mexican newspapers of the era
pushed the idea that marijuana smokers were mentally unstable and
prone to violence.

In recent years, however, the idea of legalization has been moving
closer to the mainstream, said Jorge Hernandez Tinajero, president of
Mexico's Collective for a Comprehensive Drug Policy, which supports
the loosening of marijuana laws.

In 2009, the Mexican Congress decriminalized the possession of small
amounts of marijuana and hard drugs. But Hernandez said the
conversation remains "immature" in Mexico, "in the sense that the
people use emotions and moral questions to debate it, and haven't had
a real technical-regulatory debate."

The national legalization bill will probably face stiff opposition in
Congress. Hernandez has his own issues with the bill, but said that
even if it fails, it may end up "opening a space" for further discussion.

Pena Nieto has used similar language, although what the new president
means by "rethinking" drug war policy, while opposing legalization, is
anyone's guess. He might be waiting to see whether polls in Mexico
move in a Colorado-like direction.

But even then, endorsing legalization could risk damaging Mexico's
relationship with theU.S. and jeopardize the millions of drug war
dollars Washington pours into the country.

Although President Barack Obama recently said he would not make it a
priority to go after recreational pot smokers in Colorado and
Washington state, he reiterated that he does not support legalization,
and the sale, possession and cultivation of the plant remain illegal
under federal law.

But what if Mexico were to legalize weed? Ximena Peredo, a columnist
for Mexico City's Reforma newspaper, contends it would "open the doors
to enormous possibilities for growth" in Mexico, though Alejandro
Hope, co-author of a study released by the Mexican Competitiveness
Institute in October, is not so sure. The risks involved in getting
marijuana to market are what make it so expensive, he said, and
legalization could cause prices to plummet.

Moreover, the drug cartels, facing increased heat in the drug market,
have already branched out to kidnapping, extortion and human
trafficking. Would shutting down their pot operations just push the
cartels into even more acts of violent crime?

Marijuana is "part of our patrimony," said Adrian Vaquier, a
37-year-old cellphone service salesman who was walking outside
Hernandez's Mexico City drug legalization office. It was smoked by
Pancho Villa's peasant soldiers in the Mexican Revolution and
mentioned prominently in the famous song "La Cucaracha," he said.

At the same time, he said, the current strategy isn't working while
making the cartel leaders rich: "Just like Al Capone."
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