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Opposition to Weed Legalization Unites Mexico's President With One of His Harshest Critics

After many years seemingly fighting a doomed battle, pro-legalizers have the winds of change in their favor as the government prepares a national debate on marijuana. But opponents are also getting more vocal — some of them from surprising places.

by Jan-Albert Hootsen
Jan 1 2016, 7:20pm

Photo by Torben Hansen via Flickr

Almost a decade into a bloody drug war fought against and between Mexico's drug cartels, there is suddenly a real possibility that the country could soon contribute to the wave of liberalizing new laws on weed that is gathering force in Latin America.

How likely this really is should emerge in late January when the federal government launches a National Debate on the Use of Marijuana. Experts and politicians are due to present their arguments on everything to do with the issue in a series of events lasting two months and officially charged with laying "the foundation for the creation of specific public policy."

The National Debate is the government's response to a landmark supreme court ruling in November that allowed four individuals to cultivate marijuana for any personal use they choose to give it. If the court hands down similar rulings in four more similar cases, it would create jurisprudence that would force changes in the current prohibitionary laws.

Related: Mexico Just Took a Big Step Towards Marijuana Legalization

But if, after many years seemingly fighting a losing battle, the pro-legalizing camp appears to have the winds of change in its favor, opponents of legalization are also standing up to be counted — some of them from surprising places.

The traditional supporters of keeping weed illegal have become more vocal in their insistence that a ban protects the population from its harmful effects. They also dismiss arguments that decriminalization will eat into the power of the organized crime. But there have also been less predictable objections to the idea, such as those voiced by a prominent critic of the government's drug war strategy who insists Mexico's institutions are so weak and corrupt that legalization would end up strengthening the cartels.

President Enrique Peña Nieto has been leading the traditional charge, though he has also said that he is open to being proved wrong or overridden by the upcoming national debate.

In a speech in early December the president even included a rare personal anecdote on the theme in which he said his own children asked him, "Hey dad, does this mean we can light up a joint in front of you soon?" and he responded, "No, don't be confused, there is going to be a debate."

Peña Nieto went on to express his personal opposition to legalizing marijuana because, he said, "it has been shown and documented," to be "harmful to the physical and psychological development of young people and children."

Related: Justin Trudeau's Battle for Legal Weed in Canada Is Going to Be a Total Mess

The president also dismissed the frequently made argument that legalization would help weaken the country's cartels by stripping them of their profits from illegal marijuana production and sale.

"The question becomes whether we should put the health of Mexican youth at risk in order to combat organized crime," the president said, "and my answer is no."

Other opponents go further to argue that the cartels would easily neutralize the impact of legalization.

"Many officials and politicians in Mexico are of the opinion that legalizing marijuana would diminish the capabilities of organized crime and therefore lead to less violence...this would not be the case", Mike Vigil, a former chief of international operations at the Drug Enforcement Administration (the DEA), told VICE News.

"Mexican drug cartels are poly-drug and most of their revenue comes from the trafficking of cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine," he added. "They have also developed a new business model that includes extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, [and the] theft of heavy metals and petroleum."

Vigil also argues that criminal groups would employ the knowledge they already have of the drug market — and scant inclination to play by the rules — to shut down the economic space in which legal dispensaries might hope to operate.

"The cartels would easily undercut any legal dispensaries, if not control them through intimidation and corruption", he said. "They can certainly undercut them by selling cheaper weed with higher potency."

But perhaps the most challenging arguments for the pro-legalizing camp come from Edgardo Buscaglia, an expert in international organized crime attached to Columbia University. Buscaglia has a near guru-like status for many critics of the Mexican government's military-led strategy against organized crime that he argues is doomed to failure because it has failed to also include an offensive against political corruption.

Related: The Year in Mexico's Drug Wars: A Jailbreak, a Chocolate Cake, and a Washed-Up Strategy

Critics of the strategy tended to enthusiastically celebrate November's supreme court ruling on marijuana as a step in the right direction towards a new strategy. Buscaglia, however, rubbishes the decision as "legal masturbation."

First, he argues, it leads to a contradictory situation in which the country is encouraged to legalize consumption of a drug that is illegally produced. That contradiction is also present — and increasingly criticized — in the decades-old Dutch model where highly-regulated dispensaries, or "coffee shops," are allowed to sell the drug supplied by large-scale producers who the state still officially persecutes.

The expert also undercuts enthusiasm for transferring to Mexico a version of Uruguay's decision to become the first country in the world to fully legalize marijuana in 2013. Consumers in Uruguay today can buy up to 40 grams of cannabis per month, are allowed to grow a limited number of plants at home or at a registered "club," while medicinal and industrial production is now regulated by the state.

Related: Colombia's President Signs a Decree Legalizing Medical Weed

But this is not a responsible model for Mexico, Buscaglia insists, because Mexican institutions are too weak and too corroded to allow the state to keep control.

"There is no clean and capable regulatory framework in Mexico at all," Buscaglia told VICE News. "Mexico doesn't have the capacity to regulate anything, not even aspirins."

Such a weakly regulated weed market would, he goes further, play right into the hands of the cartels that long ago diversified their operations beyond drug trafficking and maintain tight ties to the legal economy as a means of laundering their profits.

"Like any legal company, criminal enterprises continue to diversify and to expand," he said. "They would be grateful for legalization, because it would allow them even more spaces where they could launder money. You would basically end up subsidizing organized crime."

A string of recent media reports shows that the Mexican government subsidizing cartels is more than just a gloomy hypothesis. Companies linked to family members of drug lords have been shown to have received government agricultural subsidies, particularly in the state of Sinaloa, bastion of the Sinaloa cartel and its escaped leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán.

"If you want to adopt the theories of regulation, fine...but you need to clean up the political market," Buscaglia said, taking his argument against legalization back to the same root as his argument against the government's strategy in the drug wars. "If you don't clean that, you can't legalize or regulate anything."

Related: An Exclusive Look Inside Chile's First State-Approved Medical Marijuana Harvest

Follow Jan-Albert Hootsen on Twitter: @Jayhootsen