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Mexican lawmaker: Time ripe for marijuana

Recent votes in Colorado and Washington state could open door in Mexico.

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Posted: Monday, November 26, 2012 12:00 am

MEXICO CITY -- 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 had 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 "Nothing is more stupid, in my opinion, than hanging on to this out-of-date paradigm.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.

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