By Gabriel Stargardter
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto on Thursday proposed legalizing marijuana-based medicines, raising the amount users can carry and freeing inmates on minor weed charges, in a major shift amid regional efforts to reboot drug policy.
Pena Nieto, who is grappling with deadly drug cartel violence, said he will send to Congress a proposal to permit the use and importation of marijuana-based medicines, and raise the amount that weed users can legally carry to 28 grams from 5 grams.
Growing and selling marijuana is illegal in Mexico and a mainstay business of violent drug gangs. Pena Nieto did not say where consumers would be able to obtain the weed they are then allowed to carry.
Pena Nieto said if his plan was approved, it would allow many people behind bars for marijuana offenses to be released. However, he gave no further details on what appeared tantamount to a retroactive pardon for such inmates.
A traditional opponent of efforts to liberalize drug laws, Pena Nieto began to modify his stance in recent months, reflecting growing regional disenchantment with the so-called War On Drugs.
"Our country has suffered the harmful effects of drug-linked organized crime. Thankfully, a new global consensus is gradually gathering steam in favor of a reform to the international drug regime," Pena Nieto said in Mexico City.
"Instead of criminalizing consumers, it will offer alternatives and opportunities."
Pena Nieto's proposals are the fruit of a national drug policy review that he called for following a landmark Supreme Court decision in November, which allowed four plaintiffs to grow and consume their own marijuana, paving the way for a liberalization of weed regulations.
After the ruling, Cristina Diaz, of Pena Nieto's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, presented a bill to allow the import of medical marijuana products. In January, she told Reuters she expected the bill to be approved by May.
It is unclear what will now happen to her bill.
A growing number of politicians in Latin America, where hundreds of thousands of people have died in drug-related violence in recent decades, have begun to express their unease with prohibitionist drug policies.
In the United States, two dozen states have approved marijuana for medical purposes, while recreational use of the drug has been legalized in Colorado, Washington state, Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia.
The president's announcement will be good news for many of the world's top companies cashing in on legal cannabis, who have been weighing a bet on entering Mexico.
Pot private equity firm Privateer Holdings calculates a legal medical and recreational cannabis market in Mexico could be worth $1.7 billion a year.
(Additional reporting by Joanna Zuckerman Bernstein, Tomas Sarmiento and Adriana Barrera; Editing by Simon Gardner and Meredith Mazzilli)