Reporting from Mexico City and Tijuana — Mexican President Felipe Calderon strongly opposes the California ballot measure that would legalize small amounts of marijuana, saying it reflects softening attitudes toward drug consumption in the U.S. that are undercutting efforts to control organized crime groups in Mexico.
Calderon, in an interview in Tijuana, said he was disappointed that the U.S. federal government, which for years has pushed Mexico to crack down on drug traffickers, has not done more to oppose the measure.
"I think they have very little moral authority to condemn Mexican farmers who out of hunger are planting marijuana to feed the insatiable [U.S.] appetite for drugs," he said Thursday.
California's Proposition 19 could have enormous implications for Mexico. It has triggered sharp debates between advocates who say passage could help stop the Latin nation's 4-year-old drug war that has left 30,000 people dead and critics who say cartels will continue their bloody turf battles over the smuggling of other drugs such as cocaine.
A growing number of Mexican political figures, including some in Calderon's conservative National Action Party, say it is time to end — or at least consider ending — what they describe as a failed prohibitionist strategy against narcotics.
Calderon's predecessor, Vicente Fox, has made headlines by calling for legalization and regulation of all drugs as the best way to cripple the drug cartels economically. Fox recently said passage of Proposition 19 would be a "great step forward" and could "open the door to these ideas for us."
The drug issue has for decades been a source of bilateral tensions, with U.S. counternarcotics officials calling for tougher actions against traffickers and Mexico casting blame on users in the United States, which is also a leading source of cartel weapons.
Mexico decriminalized possession of small quantities of narcotics last year, but the sale and cultivation of marijuana are still prohibited. California's proposed law would not only legalize small amounts of marijuana, but also make it possible for cities and counties to approve commercial growing and sales of the drug.
Legalization advocates say passage of the California measure could pave the way for a peaceful end to Mexico's drug violence by depriving its cartels of billions of dollars in profits and the weapons that that kind of money buys. They say California's share of the overall U.S. marijuana market is big enough to affect overall exports of Mexican pot, though past estimates of the size of the underground market are unreliable.
If Californians have ready access to legal marijuana, legalization advocates argue, it also would be difficult to justify a bloody government crackdown on traffickers.
"People in California will be in their supermarkets and their Walmarts with their legal pot, and down here we'll be killing each other," said Ruben Aguilar, a former government spokesman under Fox. "Things will have to change here. It makes no sense for us to keep killing."
But the legalization measure would not, for now, affect the status of Mexico's other leading exports to the United States: cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.
Skeptics say that the violent jostling between rival traffickers over turf would continue, even if marijuana is legal in California. Much of the bloodiest fighting has been over cocaine-trafficking corridors into the United States and control over local drug markets, such as in the border city of Ciudad Juarez.
Critics also argue that even if legalization north of the border crimped drug profits, that wouldn't hobble Mexican cartels because they have branched into numerous other criminal enterprises in recent years, including kidnapping, extortion, migrant smuggling and selling pirated goods.
"It makes it extremely unlikely that any kind of legalization in California would have an impact on organized crime's net worth," said Edgardo Buscaglia, a professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico who studies crime networks. "These organized crime groups care much less about drugs than before."
It is difficult to gauge the likely effects of the ballot measure on Mexico because U.S. government figures on the drug trade are rough and often contradictory. But enormous profits could be at stake.
Booming demand, Calderon and others fear, could further empower the organized crime groups.
Calderon expressed concern that a shift in public attitudes toward marijuana is pushing up user rates. Mexican students attending U.S. universities, he said, tell him that smoking marijuana is considered "cool" and "trendy " and "healthy."
"There's a current of opinion, I don't know if it's a campaign or deliberate, positioning the use of marijuana as beneficial. Something which is totally absurd," Calderon said.