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Mexico-US Relations and Hemispheric Challenges: A Conversation with Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan

By Rachel Sadon
November 14, 2012

The legalization of recreational marijuana on ballot measures in Colorado and Washington last week present "a huge problem" for the Mexican government's effort to rally public support for the country's deadly war on drugs, Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan said Wednesday.

The heated debates over marijuana policy in the United States have amplified on the other side of the border, where the offensive against drug cartels has left thousands dead and embittered a long-suffering populace. "It is very hard for many in Mexico and for public opinion in general to understand why Mexico is expending resources to curtail trafficking … of marijuana to the United States if two of the states in the union have legalized [its] recreational use," Sarukhan said in an event at the Inter-American Dialogue. "This is a huge problem and a huge challenge."

The ballot votes, which conflict with federal law, have not yet been addressed by the Obama administration. The Department of Justice is reviewing the initiatives, a spokesperson said last week, declining to provide further details on the federal government's response. "We have to wait and see how the U.S. administration positions itself" before there can be a "full-fledged debate," said Sarukhan.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón, who has been an opponent of marijuana legalization, said this week that the measures reduce the United States' "moral authority" to ask other countries to help combat the inflow of drugs. While the Colorado and Washington initiatives "won't fundamentally impact policy per se," they do provide a "different template for discussion" about U.S.-Mexico relations, said Sarukhan. Obama's response to the initiatives could have a profound impact on the bilateral relationship with the incoming Mexican administration of President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto, who takes office on Dec. 1. The two leaders are scheduled to meet Nov. 27. 

Calls to rethink global drug policy have grown louder in recent years from both high profile former leaders and several sitting presidents in Latin America. Public perception in the United States seems to be shifting, as well. A poll taken by Rasmussen Reports conducted Nov. 9-10 found 45 percent of American adults are in support of marijuana legalization, while 45 percent are opposed and 10 percent unsure. It represents an increase from 2009, when the same poll found 46 percent of the population was opposed while 40 percent was in favor.

Nonetheless, the specific effects that widespread decriminalization would have on Mexico's violence remain contested. There is no consensus about how much revenue drug trafficking organizations derive from marijuana sales, the ambassador noted, pointing to a 2010 Rand Institute study which estimates that the drug accounts for just 15 to 26 percent of cartels funds.

If the cartels find themselves pushed out of the marijuana market by legalization, they will simply "muscle into other illicit activities, as they have in the past 6 years and which is in part to blame for the surge in violence," Sarukhan warned. "Whoever thinks that legalization is the answer to violence is wrong," he added.