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 Western states' lead?
Mexico's new president, Enrique Peña 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% to 25% 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.
At this point, there is limited public support for legalization here. A poll released in November showed that 79% of Mexicans remained opposed to the idea. By comparison, a Gallup poll released last month showed 50% of U.S. residents against legalization and 48% 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.
Peña 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 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.
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.
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 corrido "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."