If that happens, Mexico will join Uruguay and Canada in allowing people to use cannabis recreationally, albeit in more limited fashion.
Mexico’s bill would not outright legalize cannabis; it would raise the country’s existing threshold of nonpunishable personal possession from 5 grams to 28 grams. Possession of 29 to 200 grams of cannabis would result in a fine. After that, prison would still be a possibility.
Yet the criminalization of cannabis keeps Mexico’s penitentiary system bloated. In 2018, 37,701 adults and 3,072 teenagers were accused of “narcomenudeo” – low-level drug dealing. Of those indicted on that charge, 60% of adults and 94% of teenagers were arrested with between 5 and 100 grams of cannabis – not caught in the act of selling.
Even under current Mexican law, these people should not have been detained unless they had committed other crimes or behaved violently.
The legalization bill should finally end that type of arrest. But it contains several provisions that undermine its intended effect of protecting vulnerable consumers and small-scale growers, as congresswomen Laura Rojas and Lucía Riojas explained when citiquing the new bill.
For example, it authorizes individuals to grow cannabis for their own consumption – up to six plants per adult, or eight per household. However, growers must obtain a permit from the National Council on Addictions.
The bill also grants officials authority, without a warrant, to enter the residence of a cannabis grower to verify compliance with the law. That may lead some people who currently grow cannabis illegally at home to avoid registering, preferring their clandestine tranquility over invasive home inspections.
Such provisions have tempered the celebrations of the activists and academics who have for years intensely lobbied legislators to end Mexico’s cannabis ban for human rights reasons.
Filing what’s known as an “amparo” – a Mexican legal mechanism that allows citizens to defend their own constitutional rights – they argued in court that adults should be able to grow marijuana at home, and use it appropriately.
In 2015, the Supreme Court agreed, ruling that Mexico’s total cannabis ban was unconstitutional. Justice Arturo Zaldívar Lelo de Larrea noted in this landmark decision 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.”
Finally, in 2018, the Supreme Court mandated Congress to end the “unconstitutional” prohibition of cannabis.
Given the complexity of this matter and the COVID-19 pandemic, the Supreme Court has granted Congress several extensions to comply with this mandate, but the court’s final deadline expires on April 30. That means Mexico’s cannabis ban will be annulled on that date, even if the new regulation law has not taken effect.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has presented the cannabis bill as a victory of his political party, Morena.
But López Obrador’s views on cannabis have been ambiguous and erratic. Over his long political career, he has frequently voiced his willingness to “debate” legalization but never explicitly committed to do it.
López Obrador has also largely continued the drug war of his predecessors. In 2006, former Mexican president Felipe Calderón deployed the military to quell the drug trade. Unbridled violence followed as soldiers battled the cartels and, increasingly, any citizen perceived as a threat – including people who use drugs.