Next Mexican administration: US legal marijuana vote changes ‘rules of the game’ in drug war

The legalization of recreational marijuana in the U.S. states of Washington and Colorado will force Mexico to rethink its efforts to halt marijuana smuggling across the border, the main adviser to Mexico’s president-elect said Wednesday. Luis Videgaray, head of incoming President Enrique Pena Nieto’s transition team, told Radio Formula that the Mexican administration taking power in three weeks remains opposed to drug legalization. But he said the votes in the two states complicate his country’s commitment to quashing the growing and smuggling of a plant now seen by many as legal in part of the U.S.

“Obviously we can’t handle a product that is illegal in Mexico, trying to stop its transfer to the United States, when in the United States, at least in part of the United States, it now has a different status,” Videgaray said. “I believe this obliges us to think the relationship in regards to security … This is an unforeseen element.” Videgaray stopped short of threatening to curtail Mexican enforcement of marijuana laws, but his comments, less than three weeks before Pena Nieto travels to the White House days before taking office, appeared likely to increase pressure on the Obama administration to strictly enforce U.S. federal law, which still forbids recreational pot use.

“These important modifications change somewhat the rules of the game in the relationship with the United States,” Videgaray said. “I think that we have to carry out a review of our joint policies in regards to drug trafficking and security in general.” Videgaray will almost certainly be one of the most important figures in Mexico’s new administration and he has been central to the planning of the U.S. trip by Pena Nieto planned for Nov. 27. Videgaray said security would obviously be discussed during that trip and he indicated that marijuana legalization would be an important topic.

The Obama administration has said little about how it will handle pot legalization in two states and U.S. officials offered no comment on Videgaray’s remarks. The current Mexican administration has been vehemently opposed to pro-marijuana measures in the U.S., and President Felipe Calderon spoke out against a similar legalization move in California two years ago. Calderon and members of his Cabinet remained silent Wednesday on the U.S. votes.

In other Latin American countries, where cocaine production is dominant, some officials, ordinary citizens and independent experts said they expected little immediate change in U.S. drug policy, but expressed hope that the marijuana votes were the start of a softening in U.S. attitudes toward drug production. Officials with governments in the region that back U.S. policy offered little comment on the Colorado and Washington ballots.
“The fact that two states in the United States have recognized the recreational use of marijuana makes us encouraged about possible changes,” said Dionisio Nunez, vice minister of coca in Bolivia, where cultivation of the coca plant — commonly used as a stimulant by local people — is legal but production of cocaine is not.
Government officials in other countries who back U.S. policy offered little comment on the Colorado and Washington ballots.

A former high-ranking official in Mexico’s internal intelligence service who has studied the potential effects of legalization measures told The Associated Press that he was optimistic legalization in the two states would damage Mexican drug cartels. However, the former official, Alejandro Hope, now an analyst at the Mexican Competitiveness Institute, added that a key factor would be the reaction by the U.S. federal government to the votes. A strong federal crackdown on legalized pot could negate all but the smallest effects on Mexico’s cartels, he said. Hope said a flourishing legal pot market in Colorado could reduce Mexican cartels’ estimated annual income from roughly $6 billion to about $4.6 billion.

If U.S. states start developing a marijuana industry, “This will not be a super-lucrative business proposition for a criminal enterprise,” Hope said. “This will not be a cash cow.” The loss of income to cartels might lead them to branch into other criminal activities at home like kidnapping, Hope said, but he said such crimes were much more difficult to carry out than marijuana smuggling, so he considered that relatively unlikely. He said he believed it was more likely the loss of income would force cartels to shrink and even cut into their smuggling of other drugs, because they have been using income from marijuana smuggling to pay the costs of other illegal operations, such as bribes to officials. “It might produce a reduction in cocaine and heroin smuggling if the effect was large enough,” Hope said. “… How much, and in what directions, beats me at this point.”

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