Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto has reiterated his disapproval of legalizing marijuana in the country, setting the tables for a debate that could set a key precedent in drug policies throughout Latin America.
"I have clearly and categorically expressed my personal position on several occasions: I am not in favor of consumption or legalization of marijuana," the president affirmed during the inauguration of a new child welfare program on December 2, reported Proceso.
Peña Nieto's comments came the same day that Mexico's Interior Minister, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, announced marijuana laws will be reviewed in a three-pronged debate beginning in January 2016. This will include forums with experts, academics, and the public, and the analysis of similar experiences in other countries.
In his remarks, Peña Nieto maintained that legalization would not help in the fight against drug trafficking, and questioned whether fighting crime was worth putting children's health at risk. The president used a personal anecdote to enforce his point, describing how his children approached him and his wife asking, "does that mean I can light up a joint in front of you soon?"
Peña Nieto added that he was nevertheless in favor of a debate exploring the possible uses of marijuana, including for medical purposes.
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This is not the first time Peña Nieto has explicitly rejected marijuana legalization, saying in early November he believes marijuana is a gateway drug to more harmful substances. This came days after Mexico's Supreme Court opened the door to possible legalization when it allowed four individuals to grow and own marijuana for personal consumption.
It is currently illegal to produce and sell marijuana for commercial purposes in Mexico, although recreational drug consumption and the possession of less than five grams of marijuana was decriminalized in 2009.
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Mexico's next steps regarding marijuana legalization could reverberate throughout the Americas.
The stage is now set for a 2016 drug debate between Mexico's courts and the Peña Nieto administration, with the two sides currently at odds over drug policy -- although Peña Nieto has stated he will respect the Supreme Court's recent ruling. Popular opinion, however, appears to favor the administration. A recent survey by El Universal revealed 66 percent of respondents opposed marijuana legalization, although 63 percent support a debate on the issue.
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How this debate plays out in Mexico may influence the wider regional drug policy discussion. For instance, Colombia is looking to legalize the medical or scientific use of marijuana, and Brazil has been considering the decriminalization of certain drugs -- mirroring policies that already exist in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and Venezuela.
Although Uruguay set a precedent in 2013 when it legalized the production and consumption of marijuana, Mexico is a much larger country with a crucial and highly publicized role in the war against drugs. Indeed, if Mexico takes steps to further liberalize its drug policy, it may encourage other nations in the region to more seriously consider doing the same.