Is legal cannabis use a modest step toward de-escalating drug war?

Photo: NBC News

Mexico’s lower house of Congress in March handily approved a bill to legalize the recreational use of cannabis. The bill is now with the Senate, where it is likely to pass, as Mexican senators have previously voted to legalize cannabis.

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.

Selling cannabis will still be a crime, meaning peasant farmers in the states of Sinaloa, Chihuahua, Durango or Michoacán who make a pittance growing cannabis can still end up in jail.

However modest, marijuana legalization would be a symbolic milestone for Mexico, a country immersed in an unforgiving drug war.

Man holding box of Kinder candies wears a marijuana leaf-shaped mask and gives a thumbs-up
A chocolate seller celebrates the Senate’s vote to legalize cannabis in Mexico back in November 2019. Clasos/Getty Images

Modest advances

According to a 2016 study by the Mexican Senate, Mexican cartels made up to $US2 trillion from cannabis sales in the U.S. – between 15% and 26% of their total income. However, as more U.S. states make cannabis legal – most recently, New York – the drug’s importance to the cartels has drastically decreased.

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.

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