MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico's Congress opened a three-day debate Monday on the merits of legalizing marijuana for personal use, a policy backed by three former Latin American presidents who warned that a crackdown on drug cartels is not working.
Although President Felipe Calderon has opposed the idea, the unprecedented forum shows legalizing marijuana is gaining support in Mexico amid brutal drug violence.
Such a measure would be sure to strain relations with the United States at a time when the two countries are stepping up cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking. The congressional debate — open to academics, experts and government officials — ends a day before President Barack Obama arrives in Mexico for talks on the drug war.
Proponents had a boost in February when three former presidents — Cesar Gaviria of Colombia, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and Fernando Cardoso of Brazil — urged Latin American countries to consider legalizing the drug to undermine a major source of income for cartels.
The congressional discussion takes on a subject "that had been taboo" in our country, said opposition lawmaker Javier Gonzalez, adding that his Democratic Revolution Party supports legalizing personal marijuana consumption.
"What we don't want is to criminalize youths for consuming or possessing marijuana," he said.
Calderon, whose six-year terms ends in 2012, has proposed legislation that would offer users treatment instead of jail time but stop short of legalizing or decriminalizing possession.
In 2006, Mexico backed off a law that would have abolished prison sentences for drug possession in small amounts after the U.S. protested.
"It's clear that a totally prohibitive policy has not been a solution for all ills," said Interior Department official Blanca Heredia. "At the same time, it's illusory to imagine that complete legalization of marijuana would be a panacea."
Heredia urged lawmakers to keep in mind that drug use is rising in Mexico. She said the number of people who have tried drugs rose from 3.5 million in 2002 to 4.5 million in 2008, while the number of addicts rose from 307,000 to an estimated 465,000.
Mexico's drug violence has surged to unprecedented levels since Calderon launched a military-led offensive against powerful trafficking cartels in 2006. Since then, more than 10,560 people have been killed, mostly in violence between rival gangs.
Lawmakers are not discussing a specific proposal, and the debate is not expected to result in concrete action. Lawmakers have said they want to hear various viewpoints before they begin considering proposed bills for legalizing marijuana.
By E. EDUARDO CASTILLO
April 13, 2009