Can Obama and Peña Nieto Clear the Marijuana Smoke?

President Obama and Mexican President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto already had more than enough on their bilateral agenda. When Peña visits the White House on Tuesday, he and Obama will briefly engage concerns ranging from immigration reform to trade with Asia. But a figurative yet pungent cloud of marijuana smoke may hang over their conversation as well — in the form of this month’s historic decision by voters in the states of Colorado and Washington to legalize pot.

Like a growing number of Latin American leaders, Peña, who takes office Dec. 1, says it may be time to reassess the drug war. In an interview with TIME, Peña has made his first direct remarks on the U.S. marijuana-legalization measures and how they complicate a four-decade-old drug interdiction strategy that has been widely branded a failure in both Mexico and the U.S. “Without a doubt,” Peña said this month during a wide-ranging conversation at his transition headquarters in Mexico City, which TIME will publish later this week, “it opens a space for a rethinking of our [drug-war] policy. It opens a debate about the course the drug war should be taking. It doesn’t necessarily mean the Mexican government is suddenly going to change what it’s doing now … but I am in favor of a hemispheric debate on the effectiveness of the drug-war route we’ve been on.”

A host of Latin American heads of state — including Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, one of the Obama Administration’s closest allies in the region — have said much the same thing this year. Some, like Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, have even proposed drug legalization; Uruguay is set to decriminalize marijuana. That trend, aimed at depriving violent drug gangs of part of their narcowealth, reflects growing exasperation with a drug war that is fueled largely by incorrigible U.S. consumption but wreaks its mayhem mostly in Latin America, where Mexico has seen 60,000 drug-related murders in the past six years.

Washington is equally interested in Peña’s raft of proposals for reviving Mexico’s giant but sluggish economy, including a historic plan to allow private investment in its state-run oil industry. “Mexico has proven that it’s a strong electoral democracy,” he says. “Now we have to build a democracy that produces better results.” But restoring public security in Mexico is still his prime mandate. Even so, don’t expect Peña to stump for legal weed during his U.S. visit. “Personally, I’m against legalization,” he tells TIME. “I don’t think it’s the [right]route.” In that regard he and Obama — who, like U.S. federal law, still opposes legalization — are on the same page. The U.S., meanwhile, is extending some $1.5 billion to Mexico in antidrug aid.

Peña does, however, want Obama and the U.S. to know that if legalization has a future beyond Colorado and Washington, Mexico will have to reconsider marijuana interdiction on its own turf. State legalization “creates certain distortions and incongruences, since it’s in conflict with the [U.S.] federal government,” he says. “That will impact how Mexico and other countries in the hemisphere respond.” Among the questions: Should Mexican and other Latin American security forces keep risking their lives busting pot south of the border if it can be accessed legally north of it? And should Mexico itself just go ahead and legalize marijuana if that’s the case?

– Read the entire article at TIME.

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