Mexican lawmaker sees fertile terrain for marijuana debate

11/23/2012 11:08 AM

09/06/2013 8:45 AM

Bills to legalize marijuana have come before Mexico’s Congress in the past, and sunk almost without debate. But lawmaker Fernando Belaunzaran Mendez thinks this time is different.

When the deputy submitted a proposal Nov. 15 to permit the cultivation, sale and use of marijuana in Mexico, he knew that a regional tail wind might give impetus to lawmakers at least to engage in a debate.

A number of Latin American leaders are grumbling quite publicly about the U.S.-led campaign against illicit drugs, and voters in Colorado and Washington state approved initiatives earlier this month to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, opening up a schism at the state and federal levels.

Like other politicians in Latin America who are weary of a seemingly endless drug war, Belaunzaran saw the actions of the two U.S. states as a moment to rebel.

“What Latin America is asking from Obama is nothing less than for him to accept for the region what he’ll have to accept from within his own territory,” the 42-year-old lawmaker said.

Belaunzaran took a hard look at the Washington state initiative and used similar language for his own bill, which would allow individuals and companies to grow and process marijuana as long as others took charge of the selling. Tax proceeds would go strictly for the treatment and rehabilitation of drug users.

In his conservative suit and tie, Belaunzaran might seem an unlikely champion for legalization, cutting a different figure from many in his center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution. A former philosophy student and magazine editor, Belaunzaran began a three-year term in the Chamber of Deputies in September.

Before coming to Congress, he said he’d noticed a gap between U.S. counter-drug policies and the sentiment he picked up from American popular culture.

“Comedy shows with really high ratings in the United States make light of smoking marijuana,” he said. “Nothing is more stupid, in my opinion, than hanging on to this out-of-date paradigm. It is a cultural rout.”

The issue of altering the status quo on illicit substances came to the fore in August, when President Jose Mujica of Uruguay proposed that the government take over producing, distributing and selling marijuana, entrusting a National Cannabis Institute with oversight. Uruguayan lawmakers are debating the proposal.

Outside of Mujica, no sitting president in Latin America calls for legalizing marijuana, although the leaders of Colombia, Costa Rica and Guatemala say the battle against narcotics is wreaking havoc on societies and must be reconsidered.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who launched an all-out battle on drug cartels upon taking office in 2006, which has inflicted a heavy toll in Mexico, voices deepening frustration over the U.S. inability to slash what he says is the $20 billion that flows from the pockets of U.S. users to criminal gangs in his country each year.

Calderon voiced his annoyance again last weekend at an Ibero-American Summit in Cadiz, Spain, where many of Latin America’s presidents were gathered. He flayed what he called the increasing contradictions between U.S. states and the federal government.

“While in our countries a farmer planting half a hectare (of marijuana) is persecuted and imprisoned, while in our countries thousands of people die in the United States, industrial quantities will be produced and sold in those states with absolute freedom,” Calderon told a plenary session.

Belaunzaran said that Calderon, of the center-right National Action Party, was once “a fanatical defender of prohibition” but that “there’s been a change in his position.”

Once out of office Dec. 1, Calderon may be more explicit about his changing views, perhaps joining former presidents of his own country, Brazil and Colombia who’ve called for decriminalization, saying the war on drugs has been a failure.

Speaking from his modest two-room congressional office, Belaunzaran said Mexican legislators might not approve his bill but that the mood among legislators was changing even as voters remained leery.

“There’s a consensus that it’s the right time to debate the matter, to put it on the table for discussion,” he said. “Prohibition has been a tragic error.”

“I only see costs and damage, and the drug-trafficking problem today is a lot worse than when it began 100 years ago, or even 40 years ago, when Nixon coined the term ‘war on drugs,’ ” he said.

A vast majority of Mexicans don’t agree with legalization, according to a recent poll. The Parametria poll, conducted in August, found that 79 percent oppose legalization and only 19 percent approve. Four out of 10 Mexicans think violence and corruption would increase were marijuana legalized, it found.

Legislators from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI, in its Spanish initials), which will take power in Mexico on Dec. 1, said they weren’t opposed to a debate but didn’t favor legalization.

"It is very interesting what happened in the last elections in the U.S., but certainly the PRI is not in favor of drug legalization, and would never lead a drive to do so,” Manuel Anorve, the deputy chief of the PRI legislative faction, told the newspaper Milenio.

Belaunzaran’s bill, if enacted, would have the Secretariat of Health “regulate production, processing, distribution, sale and use of products derived from cannabis.” Licenses would be needed for each step, from farm to store. Marijuana would be sold only to those older than 18. Marijuana cigarettes would carry a tax of 160 percent.

All tax and licensing revenue would go to the National Program for Prevention and Treatment of Addiction and Rehabilitation of Cannabis Users.

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