Racked by drug violence, Mexico wary of Calif. vote on legalizing marijuana

Drawing on firepower, savage intimidation, and cash, drug cartels have come to control key parts of the U.S.-Mexico border, as Mexican troops wage a multi-front war with the private armies of rival drug lords.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 10, 2010; 4:05 AM

TIJUANA, MEXICO - To embattled authorities here, where heavily armed soldiers patrol the streets and more than 500 people have been killed this year, marijuana is a poisonous weed that enriches death-dealing cartel bosses who earn huge profits smuggling the product north.

"Marijuana arrives in the United States soaked with the blood of Tijuana residents," said Mayor Jorge Ramos, whose police department has lost 45 officers to drug violence in the past three years.

But just over the border in California, cannabis is considered by law a healing herb. After the Obama administration announced that it would not prosecute the purveyors, about 100 medical marijuana dispensaries opened in San Diego alone in the past year, selling vast quantities of Purple Goo, Green Crack and other varieties of super-charged pot to virtually any adult willing to pay $59 for a doctor's prescription and $10 for a joint.

The marijuana divide between these sister cities points to major disparities between the fight against drugs in Mexico and their acceptance in the United States.

As the Obama administration presses Mexican President Felipe Calderon to stand firm in his costly, bloody military campaign against drug mafias, Mexican leaders are increasingly asking why their country should continue to attack cannabis traffickers and peasant pot farmers if the U.S. government is barely enforcing federal marijuana laws in the most populous state.

This debate grows more urgent as California prepares to vote in November on Proposition 19, a game-changing ballot initiative to legalize the recreational consumption of marijuana. According to the polls, the vote is tight.

Weary of spectacular violence and destabilizing corruption stoked by the prohibition against pot, some of Mexico's most prominent figures are wondering aloud what legalization would do on their side of the drug war.

Vicente Fox, the former president of Mexico, a rancher and a free-market conservative, said last month that cannabis should be legal in his country. "The sales could be taxed, with high taxes, as we do with tobacco, to be used to fight addiction and reduce consumption," he said.

Marijuana smuggling and sales represent a roughly $10 billion business for Mexico's drug mafias, which earn up to 60 percent of their profits from pot, according to U.S. estimates.

Fox said legalizing marijuana and other drugs "will allow us to hit and break apart the economic structure that allows the drug mafias to generate huge profits - profits they use to corrupt and increase their power."

Calderon, a center-right politician, devout Catholic and father of three young children who has staked his presidency on his fight against organized crime, hosted three days of nationally televised meetings last month to debate "the pros and cons" of legalization.

"It is worth asking if it still makes any sense to maintain our prohibition against marijuana in Mexico when the United States is taking gradual steps toward legalization," said Jose Luis Astorga, one of Mexico's most prominent scholars of drug policy. "Why are we spending our resources on this?"

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