Wearing a pressed shirt and tie, banging away on his laptop, law professor Alejandro Madrazo Lajous doesn't come across as an activist for legalizing marijuana.
But as the attorney for an organization at the forefront of the growing legalization movement in Mexico, he is one of its most ardent advocates.
"Seeing the destruction of my country because of the war on drugs, I began to realize the importance of debating the idea," said Madrazo, who is also an attorney for the Collective for an Integral Policy on Drugs.
Once a subject so taboo that college kids here didn't even whisper about smoking pot, the idea of legalizing marijuana in Mexico has gained increasing favor, especially among a vocal group of academics, intellectuals and politicians.
Analysts say the shift – which echoes an increasing openness to legalization in the U.S. outside of Texas – is both a function of changing generational attitudes toward drugs and growing public frustration with the country's drug war.
The death toll has risen to 28,000 since 2006, with more than 6,000 people killed in Ciudad Juárez, just across from El Paso, since 2008. President Felipe Calderón said recently he would support a national debate on the issue of legalization, reversing his previous stance on the subject. However, he underscored that he does not favor legalization, especially while the U.S., the world's largest consumer of drugs, maintains prohibition.
Calderón's call for a debate on legalization is significant, but political obstacles still stand in the way, said David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego.
"It would be very difficult for Mexico to legalize when its northern neighbor, the most powerful country in the world, is against legalization," he said. "Mexico could not do that unilaterally without provoking a very strong political reaction from the United States."
Yet attitudes toward legalization have slowly been changing in the U.S., too.
Fourteen states and Washington, D.C., have legalized medical marijuana. Texas has been quiet on marijuana reform, but the state has relaxed rules on incarceration of first-time offenders. And in November, California residents will have a chance to vote on Proposition 19, which aims to legalize marijuana use for adults. A federal official notes that the law, if passed, would contradict the Federal Controlled Substances Act.
In Mexico, some 5 million people say they use marijuana, according to the national health ministry. That's about 5 percent of the population.
In the U.S., according to the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 35.5 million people said they had used marijuana in the past year, or about 10 percent of the population. In Texas, nearly 8 percent of Texans age 12 and older had reported using marijuana in the past year.
Four proposals that aim for varying degrees of decriminalization or legalization are on the docket in Mexico's House of Deputies and another is circulating in the Senate. The proposals have garnered support from liberal and conservative lawmakers, as well as members of the congressional national security committee.
Former Mexican President Vicente Fox has been stumping for legalization. Last year, another former Mexican president, Ernesto Zedillo, pressed for decriminalization in a widely publicized report produced with former leaders of Colombia and Brazil.
Whether legalizing drugs would serve to curb the cartel violence in Mexico remains a subject of debate.
Marijuana – the most targeted drug in decriminalization and legalization proposals in Mexico and the U.S. – is not a high-margin product for drug trafficking organizations, analysts say, while cocaine is. And criminal organizations do more than traffic drugs these days: Kidnappings, bank robbery, extortion and human trafficking are also part of their business.
Take marijuana out of the equation and "all the things they are involved in, all these incredibly horrible crimes, of which narcotics is only a part, would still go on," said Gail Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
"I don't think that marijuana legalization will be a panacea on drug violence in Mexico," said Shirk. "But legalization could change the nature of the fight. Drugs are so much more profitable than any other form of illicit activity. You take away that profitability, and you cripple the organizations' ability to corrupt the state."
For its part, the Obama administration doesn't anticipate Calderón will shift his strategy any time soon.
"Calderón has been very firm, and very strict, on his opposition to legalizing drugs," said Kerlikowske.
As he prepared for an evening meeting with the pro-legalization group, Madrazo, the attorney, said he hopes for a legal marijuana market wrested from the hands of criminals – one that would be "neither a free market nor a black market but a market that is regulated."