Nothing at all about him screams “pothead.”
Yet, Santacruz, 54, is at the forefront of a growing movement to legalize marijuana in Mexico — a move that could have seismic repercussions both in Mexico and the USA.
He talks about legalizing pot with the same impassioned fervor many here use to describe soccer clubs or favorite restaurants. Santacruz was one of four plaintiffs who won a pivotal Supreme Court case here in November, which allowed him and his co-plaintiffs their private consumption of cannabis and galvanized a national debate.
I met with Santacruz recently at his walled-off offices in an industrial corner of this city. I had heard of the case and assumed the plaintiffs were reggae-listening college kids who had appealed to Mexico’s highest court on a smoke-dazed dare.
What I found was much different. Besides being the owner of one of Mexico’s leading raw material distributors, Santacruz is co-founder and board member of Mexico United Against Crime, a non-profit formed 20 years ago to find ways of reducing crime and improving Mexico’s judicial system.
Santacruz and his partners at the non-profit studied the problem for years, inviting experts, drug czars and even ex-presidents to try to untangle the conundrum of drug-related crime in Mexico. Their conclusion: legalize marijuana and you erase a major profit stream for cartels, alleviate Mexico’s overcrowded prisons and actually bring down drug consumption.
“At the end of the day we realized that the elephant in the room which no one was talking about was drug policy,” Santacruz told me. “We had massive corruption of the police, massive corruption of government, massive intimidation and overpowering force on part of the cartels. The driving force behind all that was drug prohibition.”
Santacruz and his cohorts join a growing consensus in the continent. Currently, 23 U.S. states and the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana and four states allow recreational use. Five more states, including California and Arizona, are likely to have legalize referendums later this year. And Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau included marijuana legalization in his campaign platform.
“This is hugely significantly,” Hanna Hetzer, senior policy manager at the pro-legalization, New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, told me. “If Mexico legalizes and Canada legalizes, it leaves the U.S. as the only government in North America to not legalize nationally. The more countries that legalize, the more pressure it creates.”
As a model, Santacruz points to Switzerland, which, faced with a lethal drug problem, legalized and regulated heroin consumption starting in the 1990s. Rates of first-time heroin users plummeted, as did drug-related deaths and HIV levels.
But the strongest argument for legalizing marijuana in Mexico, Santacruz says, is the vast trail of death and carnage left behind by the country’s war on drugs. In the six years after former president Felipe Calderón declared war on the cartels, there were a staggering 120,000 homicides in Mexico — nearly double the number of U.S. military deaths in the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined. Around 26,000 people have also disappeared — more than in the decades-long dirty wars of both Argentina and Chile.
“Does it make sense to pay that price?” Santacruz says. “It’s absolutely insane.”
There’s still a lot of resistance to Santacruz’s crusade. Current President Enrique Peña Nieto has called for a national debate on the subject but has vociferously opposes legalization. National opinion has been mostly against it, but that trend is shifting. A national poll taken in August 2013 showed 79% of the population against legalizing marijuana. In a new poll in November, that number dropped to 59%.
And the Supreme Court seems to be siding with Santacruz’s approach. Unlike under U.S. law, the high court decision in November was specifically for Santacruz’s case and does not set national precedent. But if four more consecutive cases receive similar decisions, it becomes law of the land. More than 100 cases have been filed, including five directly orchestrated by Santacruz’s legal team.
I don’t smoke pot. Nor do I have a strong opinion on its legalization in the U.S.
But in Mexico, where the killings and crime far outpace the pharmaceutical risks, it seems to make a lot of sense.
By Rick Jervis for USA TODAY
Jervis is USA TODAY’s Austin-based correspondent.
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