Pubdate: Tue, 08 Jan 2013
Source: Albuquerque Journal (NM)
Copyright: 2013 Los Angeles Times
Author: Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times
Page: 4


New President Opposes Measure

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 
state 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 Western 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 state, Mario Anguiano, 
floated the idea of a legalization referendum for his small coastal 
state. In the Mexican Congress, Fernando Belaunzaran, a lawmaker with 
the left-wing Democratic Revolution Party, has introduced a national 
legalization bill. The cartels probably derive 20 percent to 25 
percent of their drug export revenue from marijuana, and Belaunzaran 
contends that legalization will eat into 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 the state and local 
levels have rejected those policies at the ballot box.

In Mexico City's centrist Reforma newspaper, columnist Sergio Aguayo 
called the broadening legalization movement in the United States a 
"slap in the face" to former Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who 
had vigorously pursued the cartels for the bulk of a term that ended Dec. 1.

Although the fight did little to stop the flow of drugs, Aguayo said, 
Calderon declined to substantively challenge the zero-tolerance line 
coming from Washington, D.C.

"He had an ethical responsibility to lead the search for 
alternatives," Aguayo wrote. "He did not do that, despite the 
evidence that was accumulating that history was passing him by."

Columnist Claudio Lomnitz struck a giddier tone in the liberal paper 
La Jornada, imagining a future in which Mexican artisanal pot is 
marketed much like fine tequila. He even suggested future brand names 
for Mexican cannabis strains, based on the Cold War-era gringo 
counterculture the stuff helped fuel: On the Road, perhaps, or Howl.

Most oppose legalization

At this point, there is limited public support for legalization here. 
A poll released in November showed that 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 buzzed 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, president of Mexico's 
Collective for a Comprehensive Drug Policy, which supports the 
loosening of marijuana laws.

In 2009, the Mexican legislature 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 a "space for 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 the U.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.

In recent months, Latin American leaders have grown bolder in 
challenging the U.S. position. Uruguay's parliament was poised to 
pass a sweeping pot legalization measure, but President Jose Mujica 
recently asked lawmakers to wait because polls there also show that 
the public is reluctant to legalize.

Mexico's Calderon said in September somewhat cryptically that "market 
alternatives" might be one solution to the hemispheric drug problem. 
A number of other current and former heads of state have been more 
direct in their support for legalization, or at least a serious 
debate on the topic.

U.S. legalization hurts cartel

A study released by the Mexican Competitiveness Institute in October 
estimated that legalization measures in Colorado, Washington and 
Oregon (where legalization failed) would mean that American consumers 
would enjoy less expensive and higher-quality U.S. weed, eating into 
Mexican drug cartel profit, creating "the most important structural 
shock that narco-trafficking has experienced in a generation."

But what if Mexico were to legalize weed? Reforma columnist Ximena 
Peredo contends that it would "open the doors to enormous 
possibilities for growth" in Mexico, though Alejandro Hope, coauthor 
of the Competitiveness Institute's report, is not so sure. The risks 
involved in getting marijuana to market are what makes it so 
expensive, he said, and legalization could cause prices to plummet.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom