California's Prop 19 Fuels Mexico's Debate On Drugs

Members of the Mexican Army arrange 134 tons of marijuana i i

hide captionEarlier this month, Mexican soldiers stack bails of marijuana — 134 tons of it — to be burned near the city of Tijuana. Many people in the Mexican border town do not believe that legalizing recreational marijuana use in California will change the level of violence driven by Mexico's drug trade.

Francisco Vega/Getty Images
Members of the Mexican Army arrange 134 tons of marijuana

Earlier this month, Mexican soldiers stack bails of marijuana — 134 tons of it — to be burned near the city of Tijuana. Many people in the Mexican border town do not believe that legalizing recreational marijuana use in California will change the level of violence driven by Mexico's drug trade.

Francisco Vega/Getty Images

When California voters go to the polls Tuesday to decide whether to legalize recreational marijuana use, the ballot initiative will be closely watched in Mexico.

In California, supporters of Proposition 19 say one reason to legalize pot in the state is to help reduce the violent illegal drug trade south of the border, where Mexico's drug war has claimed some 29,000 lives over the past four years.

But in Mexico, there is no clear consensus on how the passing of Proposition 19 would affect the Mexican drug trade.

Two soldiers watch 134 tons of marijuana burning i i

hide captionTwo Mexican soldiers watch marijuana burning in Tijuana. The 134 tons of pot were seized on Oct. 18 after a clash with drug traffickers in the largest confiscation in recent years, the military said.

Francisco Vega/Getty Images
Two soldiers watch 134 tons of marijuana burning

Two Mexican soldiers watch marijuana burning in Tijuana. The 134 tons of pot were seized on Oct. 18 after a clash with drug traffickers in the largest confiscation in recent years, the military said.

Francisco Vega/Getty Images

Mexico's War On Drugs

Every year, Mexico destroys about 50,000 acres of cultivated marijuana and seizes 1,500 tons of packaged pot. Yet truckloads of the product still flow north each year into the United States.

According to the U.N., the wholesale price for a kilogram of marijuana in Mexico is roughly $80. That same amount is worth almost $7,000 once smugglers move it across the border. The huge price differential generates billions of dollars each year in profits to some of the most sophisticated, and violent, criminal syndicates in the world.

Rene Arce, a Mexican senator who supports legalizing marijuana, says the drug war is not winnable and is destroying Mexico.

"The number of victims is very high," Arce says. "Consumption isn't going down. Production isn't going down. Money laundering isn't going down. Violence isn't going down."

Almost four years after President Felipe Calderon declared war on the drug cartels, there is not one positive sign that the policy is succeeding, Arce says.

He applauds California's initiative, though he believes passing Proposition 19 will not bring down the consumption but will at least bring down the violence. Arce says legalization on both sides of the border would allow the governments to better control the drug trade and treat addicts.

'All Drugs Are Dangerous'

The link between the marijuana trade and violence was underscored again on Oct. 25 when 13 people were gunned down at a drug treatment center in Tijuana. Local prosecutors say they believe the massacre was linked to the seizure of 134 tons of pot in the city on Oct. 18.

But many people in Tijuana do not believe that simply legalizing marijuana in California will change things. The city's police chief has said that if the initiative passes, Californians will be smoking weed "stained with Mexican blood."

Ricardo Sanchez Huesca, who runs a youth advocacy program in Mexico City, says the California initiative sends a message that marijuana is not dangerous.

"All drugs are dangerous," he says. "There's no difference between hard or soft drugs. People might be thinking that, 'Oh, now marijuana is legal, now it doesn't cause much damage.' This is a huge error."

A Debated Effect

California's Proposition 19 has fueled a fierce debate in Mexico over Calderon's drug war. Former Mexican President Vicente Fox has said that both the U.S. and Mexico should consider legalizing drugs as a way to reduce the violence associated with the drug trade.

Meanwhile, Calderon remains opposed to legalization. Calderon has blasted what he called an inconsistent U.S. drug policy, which, on the one hand, criminalizes narcotics and, on the other, allows medical marijuana sales.

He has blamed Mexico's drug war problem on the huge demand for drugs in the U.S.

More From NPR's Mexico City Correspondent

Raul Benitez Manaut, a researcher at the Center for Research on North America at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City, says even if California legalizes pot, it will have a very limited impact in Mexico.

"Many people believe that this will be a big effect in Mexico. I don't believe that. The effect will not be big, not be direct and immediate," he says.

Benitez notes that the Catholic Church remains a powerful force in Mexican society, and that on social issues, such as drug use, most of Mexico remains quite conservative. So while the ballot initiative in California is causing debate in Mexico, Benitez says it is unlikely to change Mexican drug policy in the short term.

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