Recreational Cannabis Legalized In Mexico: Who Are The Real Winners?

In 2017, Mexico legalized medicinal marijuana. One year later, the country’s supreme court deemed the ban on recreational marijuana unconstitutional. And on March 10th, 2021, a 316-to-129 vote in the Chamber of Deputies passed a bill to legalize recreational use.

The first breakthrough in 2017 came as a result of the amparo – a Mexican legal mechanism which allows citizens to defend their own constitutional rights – filed in 2013 by the drug policy nonprofit Mexico United Against Crime. The argument was that the cannabis prohibition violated certain constitutional rights, such as the freedom of each individual to make decisions about their own health. In 2015, the Supreme Court officially supported this notion, with Justice Arturo Zaldívar Lelo de Larrea commenting that the Mexican Constitution “does not impose an ideal of human excellence” but “allows each individual to choose their own life plan … as long as it does not affect others.”

“Today we are in a historic moment,” Morena lawmaker Simey Olvera said. “With this, the false belief that cannabis is part of Mexico’s serious public health problems is left behind.” As more people smoke freely about Mexico’s parks and streets and more scientific investigations can be made into the real consequences of cannabis use, the country’s stigma against cannabis will surely decline over time.

It is understandable, then, that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has marked the new bill as a sign that he has kept a promise made in the run-up to the 2018 election. López Obrador painted himself as a progressive who would “transform” and “pacify” Mexico. To onlookers with little grasp of current affairs in Mexico, the new bill may appear to be proof he is doing just that. However, last February López Obrador was hesitant about the recreational use of cannabis; he only went so far as to support medicinal cannabis, not recreational. López Obrador hasn’t done much to stamp out the ongoing drug war tearing Mexico apart, either. In 2006, the military, under President Felipe Calderón’s command, took the fight to the cartels, but only ran a bloodbath onto the streets of Mexico. López Obrador recently opted to extend the military’s faculty as a form of law enforcement until 2024. A recent poll showing two-thirds of the population to be against the legalization of marijuana also put López Obrador’s “progress” under scrutiny.

Who can claim a victory from this new bill? Perhaps those locked up in Mexican prisons for low-level drug dealing, or narcomenudeo. In 2018, 37,701 adults and 3,072 teenagers were arrested on that charge. The law, and, increasingly, Mexican citizens, will perceive the cannabis dealt in those cases as a less harmful and serious substance. Surely this means the police will forgive more and presume less if they catch anyone with a large supply? Well, not exactly. Selling cannabis without a license will remain a criminal offence, meaning peasant farmers in states like Durango or Michoacán who make a pittance growing cannabis can still be sent to jail.

Those who simply enjoy the intoxication of marijuana smoke, who are only interested in personal use, will certainly be happy about such a bill being passed. But even they are less enthusiastic than you might think. The bill will allow adults to grow their own cannabis – with limitations. Each adult will be able to grow a maximum of six plants, with a maximum of eight plants for each household. Significantly, however, those who wish to do so must obtain a permit from the National Council on Addictions. Congresswoman Lucía Riojas Martínez, who famously offered a rolled joint to Mexico’s new interior minister in 2019, says this will only further stigmatize cannabis use. If you add that new stigma to the government’s new powers to enter growers’ homes without a warrant to verify compliance with the law, it is easy to see why many people may choose to keep their operation clandestine.

The bill also does not outright legalize the drug. The highest amount that people can carry around with them has merely increased from 5 grams to 28. If someone is caught with 29 to 200 grams of cannabis on them, that person will receive a fine. Any more than that, and they face imprisonment.

Even the cartels are hardly affected by the bill. As more of the United States has legalized cannabis, the drug’s value to cartels has decreased significantly. Many of the bill’s critics believe that legalizing cannabis will barely perforate the surface of cartel-fueled violence, which has killed an estimated 150,000 in the last ten years. Cartel violence motivated half of all homicides in Mexico during that period. “We shouldn’t overestimate the power of this bill, [which will not] substantially change the dynamics and drivers of lethal conflict in Mexico,” Falko Ernst concluded. Ernst is Senior Mexico Analyst for the International Crisis Group, a global research organization.

The bill’s economic impact is one of its most important factors. Mexico has a population of over 120 million, and so could become the largest market for cannabis. However, powerful corporations could easily exploit this, especially given that the bill has an “integral license” which gives them access to the entire marijuana supply chain, from seed to sale. Conversely, small-scale producers and vendors will not have the same privilege and may find themselves on the outside, looking in. “It’s a law for the rich, and marijuana should be for everybody,” local activist Ivania Medina Rodríguez said. “They’re going for business before rights.”

So has the bill made enough progress for Mexicans’ liberties? Congresswoman Riojas does not seem to think so. “[Legalization] is an important step toward building peace in a country like ours,” she said. “But this bill falls short of achieving that.”

And so it seems that the real winners of this bill might be entrepreneurs, not your average blunt-toking Mexican. All will surely become clearer in due time. What is certain is that Mexico has taken a small step forward towards full legalization – and the liberties which come with it.

Zachary Liew


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