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Explainer: Seven Things to Know about Mexico Legalizing Marijuana

Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled on marijuana use on November 4. 

November 05, 2015

Mexico's Supreme Court might have just opened the door to legalizing marijuana throughout the country.
Mexico's big Supreme Court ruling on marijuana wasn't exactly the will of the people: 77% oppose legalization.

In a 4-to-1 vote, the first chamber of Mexico’s Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling on November 4 that allowed for limited legalization of recreational marijuana use. While the ruling only grants legal rights to the original four plaintiffs in the case, proponents of the ruling see this as the first step in a chain that could bring legalization to the whole country.

Below, we break down what you need to know about marijuana prohibition in Mexico and what are the next steps.

1. Why is Mexico’s Supreme Court debating legalization now?
The November 4 decision came about as a result of a carefully presented legal complaint filed against the government as a way to counter rising violence from organized crime in the country. The initiative is the brainchild of Andrés Aguinaco Gómez Mont, a 28-year-old lawyer and the grandson of a former president of Mexico’s Supreme Court. Gómez Mont began his work on marijuana legalization as a way to improve security in 2012, and soon after reached out to attorney Juan Francisco Torres Landa, an expert on Mexico’s drug policy and the effects of the drug war. Together, with various colleagues, they formed an initiative called the Mexican Society for Responsible and Tolerant Personal Use, referred to as SMART, and filed the original complaint in August 2013. The four members of SMART—which include Landa though not Gómez Mont, who is pursuing a masters at Columbia University in New York—are the plaintiffs in the case and as of yesterday’s decision are the only ones allowed to produce and consume marijuana legally. 

2. What happens now that the court approved the legalization?
There’s a ways to go before marijuana is legalized in all of Mexico. First up, the country’s health code, which currently prohibits recreational use would need to be altered. For that to happen, SMART would issue a type of injunction against the country’s federal health commission, known as Cofepris. If the court rules in favor of the plaintiffs, it would then notify Congress to amend the law accordingly. If Congress does not act within 90 days, the Supreme Court can issue what’s called a “general declaration of unconstitutionality,” which would nullify the prohibitive parts of the law and grant legalization nationwide.

3. Isn’t most of Mexico’s marijuana destined for the United States?
Yes. Some 95 percent of Mexico’s marijuana is produced for U.S. consumption, writes Mexican security expert Alejandro Hope for El Daily Post. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime reports that over 10 percent of the U.S. population between the ages of 15 and 64 consumes marijuana, compared to between 1 and 2.5 percent in Mexico. A White House report estimates that U.S. marijuana use rose by 40 percent over the course of the first decade of the millennium—a jump that corresponded to an increase in production in Mexico.

4. What does legalization mean for Mexico’s drug-trafficking organizations?
Even if most cannabis goes abroad, legalization advocates say prohibition contributes to drug crime violence and overpopulated prisons in Mexico while serving as a crucial income source for drug-trafficking organizations. By some estimates, cannabis is a more lucrative cash crop than cocaine or heroin, and, back in 2006, a White House report said that more than 60 percent of Mexican cartels’ income came from marijuana.

But observers say it’s difficult to estimate how much of these groups’ profits comes from marijuana, particularly as they diversify their businesses in the face of decreasing marijuana prices. And a trend toward legalization in the United States could be eating into their income. TIME reports that the legal marijuana industry in the United States expanded by 74 percent last year.

5. How do Mexicans view legalization?
The Supreme Court’s moves won’t necessarily be popular with the public. Roughly 77 percent of Mexicans oppose marijuana legalization, per a Parametría poll conducted last month. On the other hand, that number has decreased since 2008, when it stood at 92 percent. Not only that, but Mexicans are far more open to the drug’s use for medicinal purposes, with 81 percent in support—or 33 percent more than the firm’s last poll on the subject in January 2014.

President Enrique Peña Nieto stands with the people in opposing legalization, and told Bloomberg in an interview last year that it could cause a “large intrusion of drugs that is very damaging to the population,” though he said he remained open to a hemispheric debate on the subject.

One former resident of Los Pinos has become a drug legalization advocate, although he took up the cause after serving as president. Vicente Fox (2000–2006) contends that ending marijuana prohibition could help turn the tide on the country’s drug-war violence and compares smoking the drug to drinking a glass of wine. He also formed part of a 2009 commission made up of other Latin American ex-presidents, including his predecessor Ernesto Zedillo (1994–2000), who together proposed looking at alternatives to drug prohibition. 

6. What does it mean for U.S.-Mexico relations?
That remains to be seen. But in an op-ed in El Universal yesterday, former Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. Arturo Sarukhan said that, while the ruling might have implications for Mexico’s bilateral relations with its northern neighbor, he supports the ruling, calling it long overdue and the laws prohibiting marijuana a “resounding failure.” While U.S. State Department officials have stayed mostly mum on the issue, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy does say on its website that it does not view legalization as an effective way to combat organized crime since cartels derive their income from a variety of sources, an argument Sarukhan supports as well. “To think that legalization alone will put an end to insecurity or subvert international organized crime is like smoking too much of the product you’re trying to depenalize,” he wrote.

7. Could other drugs be next?
For now, advocates are simply focusing on expanding marijuana legalization to the rest of the country. Gómez Mont, meanwhile, is working to get medical marijuana legalized through the case of an eight-year-old girl with grand mal seizures.