MEXICO CITY — A debate about legalizing marijuana and possibly other drugs — once a taboo suggestion — is percolating in Mexico, a nation exhausted by runaway violence and a deadly drug war.
The debate is only likely to grow more animated if Californians approve an initiative on Nov. 2 to legalize marijuana for recreational use in their state.
Mexicans are keeping a close eye on the vote, seeing it as a bellwether.
"If they vote 'yes' to approve the full legalization of marijuana, I think it will have a radical impact in Mexico," said Jorge Hernandez Tinajero, a political scientist at the National Autonomous University.
Discussion about legalization flew onto the agenda last month, the outcome of President Felipe Calderon's pressing need to win more public support for waging war against criminal organizations profiting hugely from drug trafficking.
As he held a series of open forums with politicians and civic leaders about faltering security, Calderon suddenly found himself amid a groundswell of suggestions that legalization — which he described as "absurd" — should be considered.
Among those throwing their weight behind legalization was former President Vicente Fox, a member of Calderon's own conservative National Action Party.
"We should consider legalizing the production, distribution and sale of drugs," Fox wrote on his blog during the series of forums. "Legalizing in this sense does not mean that drugs are good or don't hurt those who consume. Rather, we have to see it as a strategy to strike and break the economic structure that allows the mafias to generate huge profits in their business."
Calderon immediately said Mexico couldn't act on its own to legalize.
"If drugs are not legalized in the world, or if drugs are not legalized at least in the United States, this is simply absurd, because the price of drugs is not determined in Mexico. The price of drugs is determined by consumers in Los Angeles, or in New York, or in Chicago or Texas," he said.
Such public debate would have been largely unthinkable a few years ago. Since Calderon came to office in late 2006, however, a national gloom has descended on Mexico from unending cartel violence and a death toll topping 28,000. The grim mood has provided fertile ground for public figures who think that legalization would undercut the power of the drug cartels.
Among them are business tycoons such as billionaire Ricardo Salinas Pliego, who controls broadcaster TV Azteca, and retailer Grupo Elektra.
With his own pro-legalization statement, Fox aligned with another former president, Ernesto Zedillo, who suggested last year that prohibition isn't working.
Still, several analysts said debate about legalization — coming most strongly from the political left — was an attempt to needle Calderon as much as an exploration of whether legalization is feasible.
Edgardo Buscaglia, an expert on Mexico's criminal syndicates, said Mexico's government is too weak to legalize and regulate narcotics and marijuana.
"You need to have regulatory capacity in place," he said. "Mexico does not even have the capacity to regulate its pharmaceutical products."
Without a better framework, any move to take away penalties for narcotics would "amount to a subsidy to drug organizations," he said, as prices and demand remain buoyant for illegal narcotics in the U.S. and other countries.
Legislators in August 2009 quietly decriminalized the possession of less than 5 grams of marijuana, the equivalent of about four joints. Tiny amounts of cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, LSD, and methamphetamine also are no longer subject to criminal penalties.
Further measures have been blocked, however, such as one before two committees of the Chamber of Deputies to permit the use of marijuana for medical purposes, as 14 U.S. states allow. Others have been put before the Senate, the legislative assembly of Mexico City and before a local congress in the state of Mexico.
Hernandez Tinajero said he thinks that Mexican society may not be ready for such moves, but that the California initiative on marijuana would impel debate further.
"Whatever the result may be, it will have a positive impact on Mexico," he said, and give way to a "a far more serious discussion."
Experts said they can't fully weigh arguments about the impact that legalization of marijuana in California might have on this country of 111 million, or whether steps toward legalization here would weaken drug syndicates.
That's because so little is known publicly about the revenue streams of cartels, the extent of production of marijuana, crystal meth and heroin, and the range of revenue from other criminal enterprises.
Counternarcotics officials say several Mexican cartels, particularly the Familia Michoacana, are deeply involved in marijuana production and sales in California.
Alex Kreit, an expert on drug law at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, said the fallout from Proposition 19, whichever way voters lean, might not be immediate.
Opinion polls show a near toss-up over whether voters will approve or reject it.
If the initiative passes, it would have an impact only in localities that take steps to permit the cultivation, distribution and sale of marijuana, he said.
"If this passes, it doesn't mean that all of a sudden that people who are growing marijuana in large amounts are going to be doing so legally," he said.
If the initiative loses by a large margin, Kreit said, it could "be the death knell" for legalization. If it goes the other way, it could "start to create a feeling of inevitability" in the U.S. and Mexico toward the legalization of marijuana.
"I almost view it as similar to the gay marriage issue. People's views are changing very quickly," Kreit said.
Hernandez Tinajero said any shift in U.S. public opinion would ripple south.
"The basic equation is this: If the United States is changing, why can't we change as well?" he asked.
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