Canada’s Doing It, the U.S. Is Sort of Doing It— How about Mexico? The Marijuana Legalization Movement vs. the Drug Wars

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 12.58.34 PMBy Deborah Van Hoewyk

On October 1, Canada’s medical marijuana industry officially went mail-order. Medical marijuana has been highly regulated but legal across Canada for more than a decade; the government’s new approach is predicted to produce a “healthy commercial industry,” with sales of domestically grown pot reaching $1.3 billion. (FYI, the spelling in the Canadian law is “marihuana.”) In the U.S., 20 states and the District of Columbia have made medical marijuana legal, five of them way back in the 20th century.

On the other hand, the tolerance for medical marijuana hasn’t done much for efforts to decriminalize recreational marijuana. In Canada, there is a movement to reform marijuana laws to allow recreational use, but the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper is opposed. In the U.S., it’s moved farther ahead—two states (Colorado and Washington) have legalized recreational marijuana, and a good number of local jurisdictions tolerate marijuana use. In Ann Arbor, MI, for example, getting caught blatantly toking is a civil, not criminal, infraction, and the $50 fine-plus-court-costs is more honored in the breach than the observance. The City and the University of Michigan permit an annual Hash Bash to celebrate the wonders of weed and a follow-up street bazaar selling consumption equipment.

In the U.S. at least, the issue is debated and legislated as a matter of access or consumption: if you need marijuana for pain relief or want marijuana for fun, how do you get it? It is not connected to the U.S. “War on Drugs,” a four-decade effort to reduce demand through stiff enforcement of drug possession laws. Enforcement in turn is supposed to raise the price of drugs, which deters more purchases. It didn’t work—during this War on Drugs, the number of drug offenders in prison has increased by over 1300% while prices of heroin and coke have plummeted by a factor of five.

While the U.S. War on Drugs reflects a policy frame of eradication and interdiction that has pushed Mexico into its own drug war, there is no resemblance between these wars. The Mexican drug war started in 2006 when the new president, Felipe Calderón, sent 6,500 soldiers into Michoacán to crack down on drug trading in the hope of eliminating drug violence. At the same time, Mexico’s eight drug cartels, enormously strengthened by the decline of the two major cartels in Colombia, started trying to eliminate each other, and as the government managed to kill high-ranking players, fighting among themselves to fill the empty power-seats. The drug wars have spilled over into murders of politicians and journalists, government corruption, human rights violations by the over-empowered military, and expansion into human trafficking. Human Rights Watch estimates that 60,000 Mexicans have been killed since 2006; the Mexican Secretary of Government, Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, reports that it’s 70,000. An estimated 20 – 30,000 more have disappeared.

In Mexico, Legalization vs. the Drug Wars

Currently, growing and selling marijuana for any purpose is completely outlawed in Mexico, but personal possession of small amounts of marijuana (less than 5 grams) and other drugs) has been allowed since 2009 under a national law signed by President Calderón. A strong majority (65%) of Mexicans believe that marijuana should be legalized for medical use and less than a third (29%) of Mexicans explicitly oppose medical marijuana, leaving 6% undecided. Legalizing recreational use goes in the opposite direction, with an even stronger majority (75% or more) opposing legalization, and less than a fifth (10 – 20%, depending on the poll) in favor, and 5 – 15% undecided. Across the country, the main opposition stems from the belief that legalization will increase marijuana use, especially among young people. If you are caught with the permissible amount of marijuana (or other drugs), treatment is suggested the first and second time; the third time, treatment is mandatory.

Nonetheless, following the legalization in Colorado and Washington, Congressman Fernando Belaunzaran of the Democratic Revolution Party (Partido de la Revolución Democrática, or PRD) has put a bill before the Mexican legislature (Congreso General de los Estados Unidos de Mexico) to legalize the production and sale of marijuana by state-sanctioned distributors across the country. The congressman’s reasoning aims directly at the drug wars—it’s estimated that the cartels make up to a quarter of their money from marijuana, and eliminating that profit will cut down on weapons purchases that make the drug wars so murderous. (Note that there is only one, count it, one gun store in all of Mexico; the drug wars are armed from the 28,834 licensed firearms dealers in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.)

President Enrique Peña Nieto has been opposed to legalization, but told CNN that legalization in the U.S. could change his thinking, and that the subject should be up for debate throughout Mexico. He has also made some moves that put the drug wars under federal control and limit U.S. influence—states are no longer allowed to deal directly with the U.S. on enforcement and the U.S. must cede control of the intelligence centers it funded to their Mexican counterparts. (The relationship of the Mexican drug wars to U.S. policy and pressure is fraught, needless to say.) Two of Peña Nieto’s predecessors, Ernesto Zedillo and Vicente Fox, both of whom ardently prosecuted the drug war while in office, are now in favor of decriminalizing marijuana use and sales, a major step beyond current law. Even while he was still president, Calderón spoke to the U.N. General Assembly about changing the structure of the three international drug conventions because their strict prohibitions actually create incentives for organized crime to continue the illegal drug trade.

In Colima and Morelos, Governors Mario Anguiano and Graco Ramirez, respectively, are making noises for state-wide legalization referendums, but none of the remaining 29 states has publicized any intentions in that direction. It’s a different story in Mexico City, which legalized abortion in 2007.

Mexico City Leading the Movement

The Distrito Federal is pursuing policy change on several fronts, with ripples across the country. Mexico City’s mayor, Miguel Angel Mancera, started planning for a forum on legalization even before the voting in Colorado and Washington. Held in August of this year, the International Forum on Drugs and Human Rights covered a wide range of issues involved in drug policy reform, and will provide the basis for participation in future international meetings on the issue.

Movement in Mexico City accompanies a more general questioning of current drug policy. Through his presidential institute, Centro Fox, Vicente Fox has stepped up his activities in behalf of legalization, happily noting that “as a farmer,” he would certainly become a grower if the policy came through. Other prominent people, most of them former government officials, have issued public statements of support. Calderón is touting “market alternatives,” code language for legalization, throughout the western hemisphere. An online petition from in support of decriminalization drew a surprising array of signatories, including the former Calderón interior minister Fernando Gómez Mont and former Fox minister of foreign affairs Jorge G. Castañeda, not to mention social activist Maria Elena Morera, film stars Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, and Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo.

An Op-Ed piece in the Washington Post, authored by two more petition-signers, former Calderón interior minister Fernando Gómez Mont and former Fox minister of foreign affairs Jorge G. Castañeda, argued that drug wars could not be won, and that “decriminalization of marijuana is not a silver bullet, but it would be a major step away from a failed approach. Mexico City is the place to start, thanks to the example set in Colorado and Washington state” (July 27, 2013).

The Op Ed piece is responding to discussion in the DF Legislative Assembly, which legalized abortion in 2007 and gay marriage in 2009, of whether to make “cannabis clubs” legal, which would get around some of the national prohibitions. These clubs would be private, with member registries, rather like nonprofit cooperatives, where people could make recreational use of the drug—think the cannabis coffee shops in Amsterdam. People would also be allowed to grow three plants on their own. The proposed legislation was suggested by the nonprofit Collective for a Comprehensive Drug Policy (Colectivo por una política integral hacia las drogas—CuPIHD), and, after eight previous attempts in the Assembly and state parliaments, is the first time such a bill has ever reached the floor for debate. CuPIHD President Jorge Hernandez has high hopes for the local bill’s prospects, but thinks national legalization will fail in the Congress—but it may open possibilities for further debate.

Will It Succeed?

Maybe, maybe not. It depends in large measure on the U.S. and whether it will back off pressuring Mexico to keep up prohibition and prosecution policies despite legalization north of the border; since neither Canada nor the U.S. seems to have the slightest concern that legalization moves in those countries contravene international drug law, or that the International Drug Control Board (INCB) regularly takes them to task for non-compliance in its annual reports, the U.S. might look a bit silly if it tries to pressure Mexico not to legalize. It also depends on whether the Mexican government sticks to prohibition regardless—in January, it was the only Latin American country that objected to Bolivia’s seeking an exception from the international narcotic drug treaty for traditional coca-leaf chewing. And then there’s Uruguay, which is poised to become the first country anywhere to completely legalize all aspects of marijuana. In a country where public opinion is almost as opposed as it is in Mexico, the Uruguayan government is trying to make its policy consistent (consumption is legal, distribution and sales are not), and they are responding to a decade-long movement by the same kinds of people and organizations who are promoting legalization in Mexico.

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