Image: Victor Arroyo
Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times
In a housing project on the outskirts of Mexico City, Victor Arroyo, who said he was a marijuana user, said that legalization would make use more open.
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updated 10/17/2010 11:13:08 PM ET 2010-10-18T03:13:08

In two weeks, Californians will decide whether to legalize small amounts of marijuana for recreational use, in a vote that polls show could be close.

Now, for a change in the drug war, it is Mexico wondering about the possible spillover, this time of an idea. Will such a bold step by its neighbor to the north add momentum to a burgeoning movement here for broad drug legalization?

The backdrop is the drug war, which has left Americans worrying about many of the ills that spill over the border: kidnappings, murders and, of course, drugs themselves. At the same time, Mexicans chafe at the guns flowing in from the States, the nearly 30,000 people killed in drug-related violence here in the past four years and the American demand and consumption that largely sustain the drug trade.

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Small steps toward legalization have already been taken on both sides of the border. California, where medical marijuana has been legal under state law since 1996, this month made the punishment for possessing small amounts of the drugthe equivalent of a speeding ticket instead of a misdemeanor. Last year Mexico removed the penalty for possessing small quantities of a range of drugs, including cocaine, heroin and marijuana, though selling or producing them remain prohibited.

But the similarities pretty much end there. Even those here who are pushing for the legalization of drugs — and in some circles “hard drugs,” like cocaine and heroin — concede that any major change in Mexico would probably be years away, regardless of what happens in California.

For one thing, President Felipe Calderón, who has expressed frustration with the prospect of a “yes” vote in California as another sign of Americans’ failure to bring their drug consumption under control, has not budged from his staunch opposition to legalization.

Because a rising number of intellectuals and some members of the political elite — including his immediate predecessor, Vincente Fox, and ministers who served under him — are advocating legalization, Mr. Calderón has called for a debate on the subject.

That raised eyebrows, feeding speculation that a change could be under way. But since then, Mr. Calderón has not done much to encourage it. In fact, two weeks after Mr. Calderón called for a debate, his health minister called legalization “absurd.”

Few people in the corridors of power have promoted the idea, and most polls show little support for legalization, particularly outside the more liberal confines of Mexico City. But even if the populace were clamoring for a change, Mexico, unlike California, is not known for citizen-driven lawmaking.

“Reform issues in Mexico tend to be top-down,” said Daniel Lund, a pollster with the Mund Group here. “If nobody in authority is championing an issue, it doesn’t have oomph.”

Advocates for legalization in Mexico and California insist the motivation is not primarily to make it easier to get high.

In California, supporters of Proposition 19, which would allow anyone over 21 to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and permit municipalities to tax and regulate it, have pushed the notion that it could raise $1.4 billion in taxes while diverting law enforcement and prison resources to more serious crimes.

In Mexico, the main selling point has been that drug-trafficking organizations would be crippled by the creation of a legal, regulated market for their product that would cut off their illicit financial pipeline.

But as the vote in California draws closer, skepticism is emerging.

A study released last week by the nonpartisan RAND Drug Policy Research Center in Santa Monica, Calif., cast doubt on whether legalization in California would financially harm Mexico’s drug traffickers.

It argued that cutting out the California market would reduce their revenue only 2 to 4 percent, in part because much of the marijuana consumed in California is already grown there, and the drug organizations derive their income from many sources. The study did, however, suggest that if low-cost, high-quality California marijuana was smuggled across the United States, the cartels could lose 20 percent of their income from exports.

Federal officials in the United States hardly see the proposal as a boon.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said Friday that the Justice Department would use federal law to prosecute “those individuals and organizations that possess, manufacture or distribute marijuana for recreational use,” throwing into doubt whether legalization would actually go forward.

Still, hardly a day passes here without some new wrinkle in the discussion.

Nexos, a magazine that has been sympathetic to Mr. Calderón’s approach, devoted its issue this month — with a large marijuana leaf beckoning from newsstands — to advocating legalization. The back-and-forth in California regularly makes headlines.

Jorge Castañeda, the foreign minister under Mr. Fox, is among the chief promoters of legalization and says he believes the debate is shifting in his favor. He notes that four of six presumed presidential candidates for 2012 told Nexos that legalization should be at least considered if California approved it.

Just as legalizing alcohol helped dismantle organized crime in the United States in the 1930s, he says, legalizing marijuana could devastate major drug trafficking organizations. While Mr. Calderón and other political leaders do not seem to embrace legalization, “what does he do on the morning of Nov. 3?” Mr. Castañeda asked.

“It is going to be impossible to ask Mexican society to put up with the number of lives at risk and the violence for a fight that Americans, or at least Californians, would have said they don’t want to fight anymore,” he said.

But some analysts think the debate here has given short shrift to another fundamental question: Does Mexico, which has enough trouble collecting existing tax revenue and regulating legal medications, have the institutional capacity to take on regulation of marijuana, let alone cocaine or heroin?

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And there is the likelihood that any curb on the drug markets would drive the cartels to expand their increasingly diverse rackets in smuggling, extortion and kidnapping.

With a chronic lack of strong anti-addiction and anticonsumption programs, Mexico would probably experience more people taking drugs and provide little help for them, said Edgardo Buscaglia, a professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute here who has studied organized crime for years.

“To think organized crime would cease to exist is nonsense,” he said. “They are like any rational business, and they will go into other businesses for the rate on return.”

Marijuana and other drugs are readily available in several neighborhoods here, “like candy,” in the words of Victor Arroyo, 24, who said he was addicted to marijuana. Without using it several times a day, he said, he gets headaches and does not feel right.

The only change legalization would bring, he predicted, would be that consumption would be more out in the open, something he laments, since he has seen children as young as 9 smoking marijuana in the public housing project where he lives.

“It would really be the same,” he said, “or maybe worse.”

Antonio Betancourt contributed reporting.

This article, Mexico watching California vote on marijuana issue, first appeared in The New York Times.

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times

Video: Brutal drug war simmers at U.S. doorstep

  1. Transcript of: Brutal drug war simmers at U.S. doorstep

    LESTER HOLT, anchor: You hear it more and more, Mexico is the new Colombia , the South American country that became synonymous with the drug wars of two decades ago nearly torn apart by violence with rival drug lords in a bloody competition to feed America 's appetite for illegal drugs. But with Mexico there's a crucial

    difference: This time the war's at America 's doorstep. NBC 's chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel has covered wars far from home. He joins us tonight from Mexico City to report on the war next door . Richard , good evening.

    RICHARD ENGEL reporting: Good evening, Lester . There is a serious conflict going on down here, which few Americans are paying attention to, but which some US officials say is as big of a threat to America 's national security as Iran or even al-Qaeda . An average week here, any week these days, shows Mexico at war. Last Monday in Mexico 's richest city, Monterrey , once immune to slum violence, drug cartels attacked a police station with grenades. In a nearby province the cartels killed eight highway patrolmen. The next day in Tijuana 11 people were found murdered. Long known as California 's seedy playground, even the US Marine Corps has now told its service members not to go to Tijuana . In Mexico there are now effectively two wars being fought simultaneously. One is between the drug cartels and the military of the US -backed government of Mexican President Felipe Calderon . The other war is among the seven main drug cartels themselves, brutal, internal power struggles over smuggling routes. This map shows how strong the cartels have become with control in about half of Mexico , including areas along the US border and the entire Gulf Coast .

    Mr. SERGIO AGUAYO QUEZADA (Political Analyst): It's going to be the first time in a century that the US have a war in it -- in its borders.

    ENGEL: First time in a century?

    Mr. QUEZADA: Yes, since the Mexican revolution .

    ENGEL: That's a significant statement.

    Mr. QUEZADA: You're having a war all over the world , but you have never had war in the borders.

    ENGEL: This is not a political conflict. The goal is cash. The drug cartels bring in about $30 billion a year, as much as Mexico 's oil industry, selling marijuana, cocaine and crystal meth to the United States . And the illicit border trade goes both ways. Drugs and illegal immigrants flow north from Mexico to the United States , while cash and weapons go south from the US to Mexico . Most of the killings here are done with assault rifles and .50 caliber machine guns bought over the counter in the United States , where gun laws are among the most relaxed in the world. So far the violence has mostly stayed in Mexico , but US officials worry it could bleed into the United States . It's hard to estimate the size of the cartels, Lester , but they're big. According to US officials, just one of the seven main cartels has 20,000 members.

    HOLT: And, Richard , what's the US government doing on this side of the border to curb the violence?

    ENGEL: There are many different American agencies down here: Homeland Security , the FBI , the DEA . Mostly they're training Mexican officials, trying to create a federal police force. But Mexican officials say the biggest problem may come from the United States , since most Americans consume so many drugs and create the market that is really fueling this war.

    HOLT: All right, Richard Engel in Mexico City tonight. Thanks.

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