President Obama and Mexican President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto already had more than enough on their bilateral agenda. When Peña Nieto 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 legalize 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. “I think [Mexico and the U.S.] can finally start moving beyond what is sometimes a monothematic relationship due to the [drug war] issue,” Peña says. “We can start focusing on prosperity issues again,” like Mexico’s participation with the U.S. in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks. 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?
For his part, Peña, 46, the former governor of central Mexico state, needs to reassure the U.S. as well as Mexicans that his centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party — which ruled the country for most of the 20th century as a corrupt one-party dictatorship until it was finally defeated in the 2000 presidential election — has reformed and modernized. Peña, however, comes to Washington at a propitious moment for a Mexican President-elect, with Hispanic voters basking in their new political clout. Obama won re-election on Nov. 6 with a resounding 71% of the Latino vote, and Mexican-Americans account for two-thirds of the U.S. Latino population — a reality that advocates hope will help push immigration reform over the top in Obama’s second administration since Republicans have to attract more of that demographic.
In his TIME interview, Peña salutes the rising Mexican-American leverage: “I believe immigration reform is a commitment of President Obama’s government, especially since it gives him a chance to respond to the great demand expressed by U.S. Hispanic voters.” A mediagenic moderate who is married to Mexican telenovela star Angélica Rivera, Peña is an avid golfer like Obama. The two may well make a future date on the links — and the fresh air might clear the smoke that Colorado and Washington just blew over Mexico-U.S. relations.
— With reporting by Ioan Grillo / Mexico City
MORE: From Mexico to Moscow, the World Turns On to U.S. Marijuana Legalization