Former President Vicente Fox of Mexico, who has always considered himself… (Alfredo Estrella / AFP/Getty…)
SAN CRISTOBAL, Mexico — Former President Vicente Fox grew up on a farm here in rural Guanajuato, one of Mexico's most conservative states. He is the kind of guy who wears big belt buckles, collects hand-tooled saddles and worships the free market.
Ask him about his experience with the drug culture and the big man with the cowboy-movie mustache exhibits a kind of straight-laced pique: Never smoked pot, he says. Hardly knew anyone who did.
But Fox has always fancied himself a policy maverick. And these days, the former standard-bearer of Mexico's conservative National Action Party, or PAN, has emerged as one of Latin America's most outspoken advocates of marijuana legalization.
Fox, 71, came out for legalization a few years ago. But this summer he has significantly ramped up his efforts. In June, he declared that he would grow the plant if it were legalized — "I'm a farmer," he said — and added that he'd like to see marijuana sold in Mexican convenience stores.
Some see him as a visionary, others as a cynical promoter milking the issue for attention (and, perhaps, lucrative speaking fees). Many think he's simply nuts. In a poll published in the liberal Mexico City newspaper La Jornada, 43% of respondents agreed that the former president "had finally gone crazy," while 32% said he should be investigated for promoting criminality. Only 11% said he had the right idea.
It was an unsurprising response from the Mexican left, who have long considered Fox to be a rash bumpkin with an embarrassing history of speaking before thinking. But these days, it is arguably the right-wing Fox who has done the most to promote this pet cause of the left and finally force a serious debate in the Mexican mainstream.
Fox speaks like a true believer about legalization's potential to save his troubled country, at times lapsing into the giddy visionary jargon of online TED talks: It would be a "game-changer," he says, "a change of paradigm."
A month after his pot-growing comments made international headlines, Fox built momentum for the cause with an attention-grabbing legalization symposium at his presidential library, the Centro Fox, here in the farming town where he grew up.
Since then, the national discussion has grown considerably. Mexican TV and newspapers are suddenly rife with articles debating the pros and cons. The mayor of Mexico City, Miguel Angel Mancera, has reiterated his promise to debate legalization in the left-leaning capital. More recently, the liberal governor of Morelos state, Graco Ramirez, said he would push to ease marijuana restrictions in his state.
Though Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto opposes the idea, it now seems possible that the nation might follow the pattern of the United States, where residents of Colorado and Washington voted to legalize recreational marijuana use, despite the continuing opposition of the federal government. The Mexican Congress decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2009.
Fox favors the eventual legalization and regulation of all drugs in Mexico. The idea is to rob the bloodthirsty drug cartels of their profits and power. Legal pot, he says, would be the first step.
"This prohibition is the last frontier of prohibitions," Fox told The Times during a break in his July symposium. Revealing a marked libertarian streak, he argued that government efforts to regulate other personal behaviors had been found wanting: "The issue of abortion. The issue of same-sex marriage. The issue of gays. The issue of alcohol," he said. "These arbitrarily imposed prohibitions have ended. And they have ended because they don't work."
Across Latin America, there is a growing frustration with long-standing U.S.-backed prohibitionist drug policies. Several current and former heads of state in the region have, like Fox, declared their support for marijuana legalization — declarations that would have been considered unthinkable just a few years ago.
One of the most significant cracks in the previous drug-war consensus came in late July, when Uruguay's lower house of parliament approved a landmark marijuana legalization bill. Observers say it has a good chance of becoming law.
During his 2000-06 presidency, Fox was a prohibitionist. But now, he says, he doesn't see any sense in Mexico fighting domestic pot growers when the legalization trend appears to be picking up steam in the U.S., where Mexico sends about 40% to 70% of the marijuana it grows.
His change of heart took place during the six-year term of his successor, Felipe Calderon, who launched a military-led crackdown on Mexico's drug cartels. From 2006 to the end of Calderon's term late last year, an estimated 70,000 Mexicans died, and thousands more disappeared — what Fox today calls a "butchery" and a "gully of blood."