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Mexico City mulls legalizing sale of marijuana

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ADRIANA GOMEZ LICON | February 13, 2014 07:29 PM EST | AP

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MEXICO CITY (AP) — Leftist lawmakers in Mexico City's legislature introduced a bill Thursday that would legalize the sale of marijuana within the capital, expanding on a national law that already decriminalizes the possession by users of small amounts of pot throughout the country.

It wasn't immediately clear how wide support was for the idea within the local assembly, which is controlled by the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, but Mayor Manuel Mancera backed the idea and the legislature is one of the most liberal in Mexico. It has previously legalized abortion and gay marriage.

The ambitious plan is sure to create controversy in a country gripped by drug-related violence in several regions and where President Enrique Pena Nieto has insisted that legalization would not reduce crime. If passed, the legislation would apply only inside the city, which has about 8 million residents, although it's not clear if all 21 million people in the metropolitan area could take advantage of the law.

The bill's sponsors acknowledged many details remained to be worked out, but called their proposal a first step in starting discussions about legalizing marijuana use.

Lawmaker Vidal Llerenas, who proposed the bill, said the objective is to allow authorities to focus on more serious crimes.

"Mexico needs to lead a discussion about how we can deal with drugs in a different way," Llerenas said. "This is a country that has been destroyed by the war against drugs that has been based on prohibition."

Tens of thousands of people have been killed in Mexico since the federal government began a crackdown on drug cartels in 2006.

Since 2009, Mexico has allowed the possession of no more than 5 grams of marijuana, about four joints, for personal use, but it still requires arrests of people caught buying or selling pot in any amount.

The initiative proposed for Mexico City would legalize the purchase and sale of 5 grams from private dispensaries. The businesses would be limited in the total amount of marijuana that each could sell, but details on the maximum weren't clear. The sponsors also didn't say how purchasers might be policed, or offer any estimate on the number of marijuana dispensaries envisioned.

Along with the local proposal, the backers are pushing an initiative at the federal level that proposes increasing to 30 grams the decriminalized amount of marijuana users would be allowed to possess. The federal proposal also wants to legalize the growing and processing of marijuana plants throughout the country.

If approved, the local bill wouldn't need federal approval to take effect, but the president would be able to challenge it in the courts.

Mexican Assistant Interior Secretary Roberto Campa said that so far there is no plan to challenge the initiatives, but stressed that both require a deeper analysis before their approval.

The proposal comes as efforts are spreading around the world to lessen or lift restrictions on marijuana.

Voters in the U.S. states of Colorado and Washington legalized the recreational use of marijuana. The federal government opposed the idea, but President Barack Obama has said it is not his administration's priority to prosecute marijuana use.

Uruguay last year became the first country to legalize the production and commercialization of marijuana nationwide.

The initiative "puts Mexico City in a leading position in Latin America," said Jorge Castaneda, a former foreign minister in Mexico. "Rather than continue fighting a war that makes no sense, now we are joining a cutting-edge process," he added.