By Diego Oré
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – The governor of a violent, crime-ridden Mexican state that produces much of the local opium used to make heroin on Tuesday backed a proposal from the next government to decriminalize cultivation of opium poppies.
Olga Sanchez, the designated interior minister of incoming president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has said the next administration will explore decriminalizing marijuana and regulating opium production for pharmaceutical use.
“It’s time,” Guerrero state Governor Hector Astudillo told Mexican radio. “I’m delighted that a different way of dealing with the poppy is finally going to be explored.”
A member of outgoing President Enrique Pena Nieto’s defeated Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Astudillo in 2016 himself floated the idea of legalizing medicinal cultivation of opium poppies to tackle mounting drug gang violence.
“To curb the violence, we must look for another approach to poppy cultivation, not only in Guerrero but in the golden triangle,” he said, referring to the region in the northern Mexican states of Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Durango where large quantities of marijuana and poppies are grown.
“Because it’s such an important ingredient for medicine, the poppy could be used for medical purposes, as is being done in other countries,” Astudillo added.
He said he welcomed a new approach to fighting the gangs put forward by Lopez Obrador, a leftist who won the presidency by a landslide on July 1. Lopez Obrador, a former Mexico City mayor, takes office on Dec. 1.
Lopez Obrador is proposing major changes to the drug war strategy, suggesting a negotiated peace and amnesty for some of the very people currently targeted by security forces.
Located in southwestern Mexico, Guerrero has the highest murder rate in the country and is a major supplier of heroin, along with Afghanistan, to the United States.
In late 2006, then-President Felipe Calderon sent in the army to battle drug gangs. Some 12 years on, the cartels have fragmented into violent warring groups and murders are at record levels. More than 160,000 people have been killed in the bloodletting, and tens of thousands have disappeared.
(Reporting by Diego Oré; Editing by Dave Graham and Jonathan Oatis)