File photo of a woman embracing her friend during a rally to demand the legalization of marijuana in Mexico City
By Dave Graham
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - A broad spectrum of prominent Mexicans, including former ministers, businessmen, artists and a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, on Wednesday urged the government to decriminalize marijuana in a bid to curb gang violence and corruption.
Since 2007, about 80,000 people have been killed in turf wars between drug cartels and their clashes with security forces, leading to calls for a change in policy in Mexico and elsewhere in the U.S.-led war on drugs.
Wednesday's newspaper advertisement urging the decriminalization of cannabis brought together one of the most diverse coalitions pushing for change in Mexico. Those lobbying included a number of influential figures in public life.
Among the signatories were several former ministers from the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, famous actors, media tycoon Ricardo Salinas Pliego, one of Mexico's richest men, and 1995 Nobel laureate for chemistry, Mario Molina.
The ad argued that criminalization made narcotics more lucrative for cartels, noted that a number of U.S. states had liberalized marijuana laws and that Uruguay's Congress was taking steps to legalize the cultivation and sale of the drug.
"Mexico has paid a high cost for applying the punitive policy of prohibition," the advertisement read.
"We know well that neither decriminalization nor any other individual measure represents a panacea to end the violence, corruption and lawlessness in Mexico. But effective decriminalization of marijuana consumption by raising the dose permitted for personal use is a step in the right direction."
In 2009, Mexico made it legal to carry up to 5 grams (0.18 ounces) of marijuana, 500 milligrams (0.018 ounces) of cocaine and tiny amounts of heroin and methamphetamines.
Despite that step, then-President Felipe Calderon staked his reputation on ridding Mexico of brutal drug cartels. He sent in the armed forces to fight them, but the violence rose, and around 70,000 people died in gang-related crime on his watch.
His successor, Enrique Pena Nieto, assumed the presidency in December vowing to reduce the killings. But while the death toll has fallen, the shootouts and executions still claim close to 1,000 lives a month in Latin America's second biggest economy.
Pena Nieto has so far opposed relaxing drug laws in the country, but says he is willing to debate the matter.
Former President Vicente Fox, a staunch advocate of drug reform, said in July he believed Mexico could legalize marijuana before Pena Nieto leaves office in 2018.
A notable signatory of Wednesday's announcement was former Finance Minister Pedro Aspe, a mentor of current Finance Minister Luis Videgaray, one of Pena Nieto's closest aides.
Others included actors Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, two former health ministers, peace activist Javier Sicilia and Calderon's brother-in-law, Juan Ignacio Zavala.
Lawmakers have said Mexico City could serve as a launchpad for a change in drug policy. Mexico City's local center-left government has taken advantage of more liberal views in the capital to pass landmark laws such as legalizing gay marriage.
The public advertisement made the same argument.
"Public opinion in the capital is increasingly tolerant of individual choices and could also be regarding marijuana use, with a view to a more complete regulation in future," it read.
Senior officials in the Party of the Democratic Revolution, which runs Mexico City, say the party could put forward a proposal to relax marijuana laws in the capital later this year.
(Additional reporting by Veronica Gomez; Editing by Stacey Joyce)