MEXICO CITY – MEXICO CITY (AP) — A former Mexican president's proposal to legalize drugs as a way of breaking the economic power of drug cartels is stoking debate inside his country and bringing opposition in Washington.
One thing most experts agreed on is that the idea is unlikely to prosper without similar moves to legalize or regulate the sale of drugs in the United States, the main consumer of drugs from Mexico.
When former President Vicente Fox wrote in a blog Sunday that "we should consider legalizing the production, distribution and sale of drugs," it was the most far-reaching and high-ranking stand for legalization yet in Mexico, where more than 28,000 people have died during the current administration's war against drug cartels.
Fox belongs to the same conservative National Action Party of current President Felipe Calderon, who said last week that he was open to a debate on legalizing drugs, even though he opposes the idea.
The increased talk of legalization by even conservative Mexican politicians comes amid growing frustration with the government's use of the military to fight brutal cartels, a strategy that has captured or killed high-ranking traffickers but caused violence to surge.
The U.S. State Department said Monday that "the question of debating the legalization of drugs is for Mexicans to decide."
But a State Department spokeswoman who was not authorized to be quoted by name also said that the department's position is that "we don't believe legalization is the answer."
A similar view was expressed by the Mexican anti-crime group Citizen's Council for Public Safety.
"The legalization proposal is mistaken, because it shows a lack of understanding of Mexico's problem and avoids the main cause, which is quite simply the government's loss of the monopoly on the use of force," the group said, referring to cartels that confront security forces with grenades, automatic weapons and now car bombs.
Others say the timing of the debate was determined by events in the United States. Voters in California will go to the polls to decide in November on Proposition 19, which would allow adults to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and local governments to tax its sales.
"They (Mexican officials) are very afraid that California will legalize marijuana," said Samuel Gonzalez, a former top anti-drug prosecutor.
"For the government it would be disastrous for California to legalize, while we here are still saying 'don't let drugs get to your children,'" Gonzalez said, referring to a government ad campaign that seeks to justify Mexico's anti-drug strategy.
"I favor regulating the market ... medicinal marijuana is an attempt to regulation," Gonzalez said, "But legalization, never, ever."
Jorge Chabat, a Mexican expert on drug cartels, said that "in my opinion, legalize everything and regulate everything ... that could really affect the finances of the drug cartels, especially if the government were the supplier" of drugs.
Chabat said marijuana remains an important source of income for the cartels.
In an interview with a radio station over the weekend, Calderon acknowledged "that could be true."
But he warned that "completely freeing the drug market and even reducing prices are two factors that could push millions and millions of youths to consume drugs."
Just about everyone agrees Mexico probably can't or won't legalize on its own.
"If there isn't a generalized, universal legalization policy across the world, and mainly in the main drug consumer, the United States, there won't even be any economic benefits, because the price is determined by the American market," Calderon said.
Chabat said if the U.S. doesn't take that path, "they won't be able to do it here ... the pressure of the United States would be brutal."