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.
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.