Mexico’s Supreme Court Opens The Door To Marijuana Legalization

A decision from Mexico's Supreme Court has opened the door to legalization of marijuana south of the border, but it's likely to proceed much slower than in the United States or Canada.

Marijuana Plant

As the debate over marijuana legalization continues moving forward in the United States, our neighbor to the south also seems to be on a path toward legalization albeit by a different route:

The Mexican Supreme Court opened the door to legalizing marijuana on Wednesday, delivering a pointed challenge to the nation’s strict substance abuse laws and adding its weight to the growing debate in Latin America over the costs and consequences of the war against drugs.

The vote by the court’s criminal chamber declared that individuals should have the right to grow and distribute marijuana for their personal use. While the ruling does not strike down current drug laws, it lays the groundwork for a wave of legal actions that could ultimately rewrite them, proponents of legalization say.

The decision reflects a changing dynamic inMexico, where for decades the American-backed antidrug campaign has produced much upheaval but few lasting victories. Today, the flow of drugs to the United States continues, along with the political corruption it fuels in Mexico. The country, dispirited by the ceaseless campaign against traffickers, remains engulfed in violence.

“It’s the drama behind all of our efforts,” said Juan Francisco Torres Landa, a corporate lawyer who was one of the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case.


The legal ruling on Wednesday barely referred to the bloody backdrop of the drug war. Instead, Justice Arturo Zaldívar wrote an 88-page opinion based on principles of human rights, arguing that the state recognizes an individual’s autonomy to engage in recreational activities that do not harm others.

The number of marijuana users in Mexico is believed to be small. One 2011 drug-use survey estimated that 2 percent of Mexicans had smoked marijuana in the past year. Although that figure is probably low, it is less than the 7.5 percent of people in the United States who said in a 2013 survey that they had used marijuana in the previous month.


The ruling on Wednesday was the culmination of an effort to change the law by four members of a prominent Mexican anticrime group, Mexico United Against Crime.

Mr. Torres Landa and Mr. Santacruz formed an alliance with two other people, called the Mexican Society for Responsible and Tolerant Consumption — the Spanish acronym is Smart. Their group applied for a license from Mexico’s drug regulatory agency to use marijuana, but, as expected, was turned down. Their appeal of that decision eventually reached the Supreme Court.

Yet the ruling on Wednesday applies only to their petition. For legal marijuana to become the law of the land, the justices in the court’s criminal chamber will have to rule the same way five times, or eight of the 11 members of the full court will have to vote in favor.

Given the extent to which drug cartels, most of which are built to a significant degree on the profits made smuggling marijuana to the United States, have become a problem in Mexico in terms of the violence that they have created in vast parts of the country, this is a potentially significant development that could revolutionize how marijuana is treated in the entire Western Hemisphere. In addition to the momentum for legalization here in the United States, which is likely to remain quite strong notwithstanding the defeat of what even supporters admit was a flawed legalization ballot initiative in Ohio last week, Canada seems to be on the verge of nationwide legalization thanks to the election of the Liberal Party led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, which made legalization part of its election platform and is promising to bring the issue before Parliament within the next year or so. Additionally, the developments here in the U.S., in Canada, and most importantly in Mexico seem to be sparking debate on the subject of marijuana legalization elsewhere in Latin America in a way that could have an impact on Washington’s War On Drugs beyond the borders of the United States:

The marijuana case has ignited a debate about the effectiveness of imprisoning drug users in a country with some of the most conservative drug laws in Latin America. But across the region, a growing number of voices are questioning Washington’s strategy in the drug war. With little to show for tough-on-crime policies, the balance appears to be slowly shifting toward other approaches.

Uruguay enacted a law in 2013 to legalize marijuana, though the creation of a legal marijuana industry in the small country has unfolded slowly. Chile gathered its first harvest of medical marijuana this year. In Brazil, the Supreme Court recently debated the decriminalization of marijuana, cocaine and other drugs. And Bolivia allows traditional uses of coca, the plant used to make cocaine.

Many leaders in Latin America have called for a shift in policy, including President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia. In May, his government ordered a halt to the aerial spraying of illegal coca fields, rejecting a major tool in the American-backed antidrug campaign because of concerns that the herbicide spray causes cancer.

Though Mr. Santos is one of Washington’s closest allies in the region, he has pointed out the incongruity of jailing poor farmers for growing marijuana while it is slowly being decriminalized in the United States.

“Every country in the world signed up to a treaty that prescribed a prohibitionist and criminalized approach to dealing with drugs that was one-sided,” said John Walsh, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group. “That basic response doesn’t work anymore.”

Mexicans seeking a new strategy have also been struck by the situation. “We are killing ourselves to stop the production of something that is heading to the U.S., where it’s legal,” said Armando Santacruz, another plaintiff in the case.

Still, few think that legalizing marijuana will significantly reduce drug violence or weaken the gangs.

Although the rising production of higher-quality marijuana in the United States reduces demand for Mexican imports, experts say that Mexican gangs continue to account for an important percentage of the American supply.

As it stands, marijuana accounts for more than a fifth of revenues generated by cartels, around $1.5 billion a year, according to a 2010 report by the RAND Corporation.

The one thing that could significantly affect the cartels’ marijuana business is legislation in the United States. As marijuana growing for commercial purposes in America expands, demand for Mexican marijuana could eventually dry up.

Pro-marijuana activists have scored a remarkable string of election wins in recent years even though the drug remains illegal under federal law.Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have passed laws permitting medical marijuana, and four states also allow recreational use by adults.

“In the long run, as the U.S. legalizes marijuana, Mexico is going to have a tough time competing with lawful American suppliers,” Mr. Walsh said. “That doesn’t mean they won’t have a business plan, it’s just that marijuana will be removed from it.”

Politically speaking, it doesn’t appear that Mexico itself is ripe ground for legalization right now the way that the United States and Canada are. The linked article notes that political pollsters in the country don’t even bother polling the issue right now because they already know that the public is overwhelmingly against it. In part, I suspect, that sentiment is rooted in a reaction to what the cartels have done to many parts of the country and the fear that legalization would only enrich them somehow. Additionally, in many ways Mexico seems to be a more culturally conservative country than its northern neighbors, as does the rest of Latin America, so it’s not surprising that the attitudes toward marijuana legalization and other issues would be different than they are here or in Canada. You see much the same thing with regard to same-sex marriage, which is of course legal in the United States and Canada, but at the point in Mexico where legalization is proceeding on a state-by-state basis, still illegal in the rest of Latin America, and only recognized in South America in Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. As time goes on, this is likely to change and the same is likely true regarding marijuana legalization, especially as legalization becomes the norm in the United States and Canada, at which point the cartels that profit from smuggling the drug north illegally are likely to find their markets significantly reduced if not eliminated completely.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Ron Beasley says:

    The cartels don’t just import it they grow here in the US. There is BLM land in Eastern Oregon where people are advised not to go because the drug cartels are growing marijuana and the BLM and local law enforcement don’t have the resources to do anything about it. They are always well armed and protect their plantations in the sparsely populated wilderness areas of the Oregon high desert. I don’t know if legalization will have any impact on that activity since they can always sell their crop in another state. In addition with the high taxes on the legal weed there will continue to be a black market even here in Oregon.

  2. Gustopher says:

    @Ron Beasley: Your claim of cartels openly operating on federal land in Oregon sounds a bit like the right wing nutjob claims of communities in the US operating under Sharia law where police are afraid to go.

    Do you have any reputable citations for your Oregon cartels?

    If it were true, I would expect nonstop news reports from Fox about how Obama is letting drug lords operate freely on government land, and how the solution is to privatize the BLM and repeal ObamaCare.

  3. Ron Beasley says:

    @Gustopher: I don’t have any links but there have been numerous stories on local TV and in the local papers. This is a sparsely populated area in a low population state and on a national basis I don’t really think there is a lot of interest. As for privatizing the BLM land it’s not really good for anything and I doubt there would be any takers anyway – no oil or gas and no minerals. The BLM has put up warning signs.

  4. Matt says:

    @Gustopher: He’s right the drug cartels are setting up people in remote areas with the supplies for large outdoor harvests. The issue is there’s a LOT of BLM area to cover and not nearly enough funds to do so.

    If the entire USA legalized weed the cartels would probably stop growing as locals could then easily fill the need for those wanting to dodge the related taxes. I’m surprised people would still buy the shitty cartel weed in a state with legal weed as the difference in quality is more then worth the price difference or related taxes.