Mexico court ruling hints at marijuana policy change

Mexico court ruling hints at marijuana policy change

A historic ruling by Mexico’s Supreme Court regarding marijuana use could act as precedent to spur an about-face in Mexico’s drug policy.

On November 4th, Mexico’s Supreme Court voted to declare unconstitutional the prohibition of growing marijuana for consumption. However, the ruling applies only to four plaintiffs involved in a single case, who were granted a concession allowing them to grow and use marijuana for recreational and personal use.

The ruling does not imply a general legalization nor does it signify a major shift in the country’s anti-drug stance but it sets an important legal precedent and it has shifted public attention towards a much-needed debate in a country plagued by drug violence and flooded with cartel money.

According to Mexican law, the Supreme Court would need to favourably rule four more times in similar cases for the criteria to be adopted as jurisprudence. Nonetheless, the legal process is burdensome and could take years to reach the Supreme Court. The four plaintiffs involved in this case submitted their demands in 2013.

Public opinion a hurdle to legalization

Although many proponents of marijuana legalization have cheered at the resolution, national public perception remains sceptical on the issue.

The latest national poll revealed that 77% of Mexicans were against marijuana legalization. In stark contrast, 81% were in favour of marijuana use for medical purposes. This results are somewhat striking in a country that has endured years of horrid drug-related violence perpetrated by cartels that fuel their operations through marijuana revenues.

Although up-to-date figures on national marijuana consumption are missing, relatively few Mexicans use the drug (estimated at 2% of the population), compared to their North American counterparts. This implies that a relatively low percentage of cartel revenues comes from Mexico’s internal marijuana market. However, the economic case for marijuana legalization is crucial in a country whose “war on drugs” strategy has focused on violent confrontations and cartel fragmentation with terrible results.

Marijuana legalization in four American states could provide a valuable lesson for drug policy south of the border. Mexican cartels obtain an estimated $2 billion a year from marijuana exports to the United States. However, homegrown marijuana in states like Washington or Colorado could provide a better alternative to Mexican cannabis for users.

Therefore, Mexican cartels could lose up to $1.4 billion in revenues as the marijuana market in the U.S. develops. This would be a significant blow for Mexican cartels, which obtain similar figures from marijuana and cocaine trade.

Regional swing towards relaxing War on Marijuana

Similar moves have taken hold elsewhere in Latin America. Uruguay became the first country in the region to legalize marijuana in 2013 and has worked to create a marijuana industry since. Chile has allowed homegrown marijuana for medical purposes while Brazil’s Supreme Court has debated the decriminalization of certain drugs.

Marijuana consumption in Mexico was decriminalized in 2009 and citizens are allowed to carry up to 5 grams of cannabis. However, the penalty for producing, transporting or providing marijuana is from 10-25 years of prison. Mexican prisons are flooded with inmates who have committed marijuana-related crimes (about 500,000 arrests a year).

A more tolerant stance on the issue would provide much-needed relief at Mexico’s overflowed prisons (at 128.7% overcapacity) for inmates who have committed minor marijuana-related offences, such as distributing small quantities, and therefore focus on higher-profile criminals.

Legalization not a cure-all for Mexico’s cartel problems

Nonetheless, an eventual legalization of marijuana in Mexico will hardly translate into a game-changer in the war on drugs or a decrease in violence. Mexican cartels have turned to extortions and kidnappings in recent years as an important source of revenue. Even if marijuana-related revenues fade as the result of legalization in Mexico and abroad, cocaine trade still accounts for a higher percentage of their revenues.

Mexico’s – and to an extent, Latin America’s – anti-drug strategy has failed as a result of uncoordinated policies between drug-producing regions and the United States (the main destination of drug exports).

However, a less strict stance on drugs could become the first step in the right direction for Mexico’s security policy. With economic and legal incentives to advance drug-production and consumption legislation, Mexican policymakers cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

Public opinion remains an important hurdle but this could change rapidly, as it did regarding same-sex marriage. Momentum on drug legislation has taken hold in the Americas and it would be unwise for Mexico to not follow.

Categories: North America, Security

About Author

Eduardo Arcos

Eduardo Arcos is a policy analyst and freelance journalist. He holds an M.Sc. in Security Studies from University College London and a B.A. in International Relations from the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education (ITESM). His research focuses on international political economy, peace and security and Latin American affairs.