Pubdate: Tue, 03 Sep 2013
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2013 Los Angeles Times
Author: Richard Fausset


The Ex-President Is an Unlikely Champion of Legalizing Marijuana.

SAN CRISTOBAL, Mexico - Former President Vicente Fox grew up on a 
farm here in rural Guanajuato, one of Mexico's most conservative 
states. He is the kind of guy who wears big belt buckles, collects 
handtooled saddles and worships the free market.

Ask him about his experience with the drug culture and the big man 
with the cowboy-movie mustache exhibits a kind of strait-laced pique: 
Never smoked pot, he says. Hardly knew anyone who did.

But Fox has always fancied himself a policy maverick. And these days, 
the former standard-bearer of Mexico's conservative National Action 
Party, or PAN, has emerged as one of Latin America's most outspoken 
advocates of marijuana legalization.

Fox, 71, came out for legalization a few years ago. But this summer 
he has significantly ramped up his efforts. In June, he declared that 
he would grow the plant if it were legalized - "I'm a farmer," he 
said - and added that he'd like to see marijuana sold in Mexican 
convenience stores.

Some see him as a visionary, others as a cynical promoter milking the 
issue for attention (and, perhaps, lucrative speaking fees). Many 
think he's simply nuts. In a poll published in the liberal Mexico 
City newspaper La Jornada, 43% of respondents agreed that the former 
president "had finally gone crazy," while 32% said he should be 
investigated for promoting criminality. Only 11% said he had the right idea.

It was an unsurprising response from the Mexican left, who have long 
considered Fox to be a rash bumpkin with an embarrassing history of 
speaking before thinking. But these days, it is arguably the 
right-wing Fox who has done the most to promote this pet cause of the 
left and finally force a serious debate in the Mexican mainstream.

Fox speaks like a true believer about legalization's potential to 
save his troubled country, at times lapsing into the giddy visionary 
jargon of online TED talks: It would be a "game-changer," he says, "a 
change of paradigm."

A month after his pot growing comments made international headlines, 
Fox built momentum for the cause with an attention grabbing 
legalization symposium at his presidential library, the Centro Fox, 
here in the farming town where he grew up.

Since then, the national discussion has grown considerably. Mexican 
TV and newspapers are suddenly rife with articles debating the pros 
and cons. The mayor of Mexico City, Miguel Angel Mancera, has 
reiterated his promise to debate legalization in the left-leaning 
capital. More recently, the liberal governor of Morelos state, Graco 
Ramirez, said he would push to ease marijuana restrictions in his state.

Though Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto opposes the idea, it now 
seems possible that the nation might follow the pattern of the United 
States, where residents of Colorado and Washington voted to legalize 
recreational marijuana use, despite the continuing opposition of the 
federal government. The Mexican Congress decriminalized the 
possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2009.

Fox favors the eventual legalization and regulation of all drugs in 
Mexico. The idea is to rob the bloodthirsty drug cartels of their 
profits and power. Legal pot, he says, would be the first step.

"This prohibition is the last frontier of prohibitions," Fox told The 
Times during a break in his July symposium. Revealing a marked 
libertarian streak, he argued that government efforts to regulate 
other personal behaviors had been found wanting: "The issue of 
abortion. The issue of same-sex marriage. The issue of gays. The 
issue of alcohol," he said. "These arbitrarily imposed prohibitions 
have ended. And they have ended because they don't work."

Across Latin America, there is a growing frustration with 
long-standing U.S.-backed prohibitionist drug policies. Several 
current and former heads of state in the region have, like Fox, 
declared their support for marijuana legalization - declarations that 
would have been considered unthinkable just a few years ago.

One of the most significant cracks in the previous drug-war consensus 
came in late July, when Uruguay's lower house of parliament approved 
a landmark marijuana legalization bill. Observers say it has a good 
chance of becoming law.

During his 2000-06 presidency, Fox was a prohibitionist. But now, he 
says, he doesn't see any sense in Mexico fighting domestic pot 
growers when the legalization trend appears to be picking up steam in 
the U.S., where Mexico sends about 40% to 70% of the marijuana it grows.

His change of heart took place during the six-year term of his 
successor, Felipe Calderon, who launched a military-led crackdown on 
Mexico's drug cartels. From 2006 to the end of Calderon's term late 
last year, an estimated 70,000 Mexicans died, and thousands more 
disappeared - what Fox today calls a "butchery" and a "gully of blood."

Fox's friends say he was affected by the Calderon era. "I think Fox 
is a religious person, and he is a humanist," said Ruben Aguilar, 
Fox's former spokesman. "He lives with a lot of sadness over the 
deaths in those last six years."

Calderon, for his part, has said that he launched the offensive 
because he discovered, after winning the election, that Mexico's 
criminal groups had become frighteningly powerful, and that the 
institutions charged with fighting crime were, in many cases, mixed up in it.

Embedded in such comments is an implicit critique of Fox's 
leadership, and it reflects the broader criticism that some other 
observers level against him: that he accomplished little of note 
after the milestone 2000 election in which he vanquished the 
Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which governed Mexico in a 
semi-autocratic fashion for more than 70 years.

Aguilar defended Fox's record as president and noted that he has 
always been more popular with the Mexican mainstream than with the 
left and the news media. Even so, it will be a challenge for Fox to 
sell the idea of a radical shift in drug policy to ordinary Mexicans. 
In a poll released last month by the research firm GCE, nearly 50% of 
Mexicans said they were "totally opposed" to marijuana legalization, 
while about 14% said they strongly favored it. The rest fell 
somewhere in between.

Unease with the idea is almost palpable. Former presidential 
candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador recently called the 
legalization debate "a smoke screen" detracting from more important 
issues including the economy and corruption.

Fox has already changed the Mexican status quo once. Many would agree 
that his 2000 presidential victory was the catalyst for a new era of 
democratic governance. The fact is not lost on him. Hanging in the 
main room of his glass and concrete library are a series of banners 
honoring visionary thinkers including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. 
and Mohandas K. Gandhi.

There is also a banner of Vicente Fox.

The library is the first of its kind in Mexico, and Fox takes pride 
in the fact that, unlike other Mexican ex-presidents, he has stayed 
involved in the public debate, enjoying the freedom to speak his 
mind, with little concern for political taboos.

He's certainly caused his share of trouble. Last year, his own party 
threatened to kick him out after he endorsed Pena Nieto, the PRI 
candidate, for president. Fox said he simply thought Pena Nieto was 
the best candidate. PAN leaders said they would expel him, but he 
quit the party before they could do so.

In Oaxaca this summer, the city council officially declared him 
persona non grata after he proclaimed that he had been a better 
president than Benito Juarez, the Oaxaca-born 19th century president 
who is perhaps Mexico's most revered political hero.

Criticism came from all sides, but Fox did not back down. As the 
first day of the drug symposium drew to a close, he could be found 
making an extended case against Juarez for the benefit of a Mexican 
TV reporter.

There were more reporters, and many more questions, but eventually 
the ex-president called it a day. He walked from his presidential 
library to his family's graceful old hacienda, now converted into a 
luxury hotel.

He sidled up to the bar and ordered that least controversial of 
Mexican psychoactive substances: a cold Corona.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom