Mexico is on the verge becoming just the third country in the world to legalise recreational cannabis, after the Chamber of Deputies overwhelmingly approved a bill to permit adults over the age of 18 to cultivate and possess the plant. Lawmakers are hopeful that by legitimising the cannabis market in Mexico, the new legislation will go some way to weakening the country’s violent cartels, which operate within the contours of an illegal drugs landscape. While this obviously marks a huge step forward, it’s worth bearing in mind that the bill is far from perfect, and improvements are needed in order to ensure fairness and social justice within the new legal cannabis market.
Cannabis to be legalised in Mexico
The new bill will allow adults to cultivate up to eight plants and carry up to 28 grams of cannabis for personal use, and was approved in the lower house by a majority of 316 votes to 127 last week. Having originally passed the Senate back in November, the bill’s passage through the Mexican legislative system was delayed by several months so that lawmakers could re-examine it and make a few tweaks. It will therefore need to return to Senate for another vote on the new amendments before being enshrined into law, and is widely expected to pass once again.
Once this occurs, Mexico will join Uruguay and Canada as the only nations to legalise recreational cannabis use. “This is a historic step and should be celebrated,” says Zara Snapp, co-founder of Instituto RIA, which campaigns for drug policy reform and social justice in Mexico. In a recent chat with Seedsman, she explained that “Mexico will be the third country in the world to regulate recreational cannabis, but the first cannabis-producing country to do so.”
It’s this key factor that sets Mexico apart from Uruguay and Canada, presenting a number of pitfalls that must be avoided if the social injustices wrought by prohibition are to be undone by the new bill.
Who Will Benefit From Legal Cannabis In Mexico?
While some may consider cannabis legalisation to be driven by financial or medical concerns, the reality is that it is first and foremost a social justice issue. In the US, for instance, policy changes have always been accompanied by calls to ensure that they are tailored to benefit those who have been most affected by the War on Drugs.
Naturally, the same goes for Mexico, which is why the version of the bill that was presented to the Senate last year contained several clauses that were designed to protect the rights of certain communities. According to Snapp, up to 40 percent of commercial cultivation licenses were originally intended to “go specifically to communities that have been affected by prohibition or are part of the social sector, which in Mexican law is defined as ejidos [communally owned agricultural villages], cooperatives and indigenous communities.”
“We have suggested that this be increased to 80 percent, as we believe that it’s in the best interests of the country to ensure that there’s less poverty in rural communities.”
Rather than increasing this percentage, however, this stipulation has somewhat shockingly been scrapped from the bill entirely, making the Mexican market something of a free-for-all where smaller cultivators and rural communities stand little chance of competing with larger companies.
“The bill that was passed does say that “priority” will be given to communities, but it is unclear how we will be able to evaluate that priority without clear metrics,” says Snapp.
To compound the issue, an earlier form of the bill had stated that “vertical integration” of licenses would only be available to these communities, allowing them to hold multiple types of license simultaneously and giving them a valuable advantage over their larger competitors. Sadly, says Snapp, “they took that out at the last minute, so that now any company will be able to have multiple licenses – such as cultivation, distribution, transformation, import and export.”
Taken together, these changes massively hinder the chances of smaller communities from competing against larger companies, meaning that those who have suffered the most as a result of prohibition may be unable to share in the spoils of legalisation.
Who Will Regulate The Market?
Snapp and her colleagues had been arguing for the creation of an institute for the regulation and control of cannabis in Mexico, with a view to protecting the interests of smaller cultivators and rural communities. However, it has now been confirmed that the national commission against drug addiction will take charge of the implementation of the new law, with the secretary of agriculture designating production licenses.
At this stage, few details have been given regarding the requirements that will be imposed on prospective commercial cultivators, and further legislation will be required in order to hammer out the details. However, many are concerned that these will include expensive and unnecessary obligations, such as the implementation of complex tracking systems, all of which would once again pose a major barrier to access to the market for smaller players.
The lack of clarity on this issue is therefore a major weak point of the new law, and – in the absence of a specialised institute – leaves considerable room for the government to tilt the playing field in favour of big businesses.
“We want this to be an open market that allows there to be many small businesses and many actors – primarily Mexican – though it is going to be more difficult for campesinos and cultivating communities to participate in the market,” says Snapp.
Is There Still Room For Criminalisation?
Mexico’s new cannabis bill allows the possession of up to 28 grams, although some have suggested that simple possession should be entirely eliminated as a crime. Fines and prison sentences will still be handed out to those found to be carrying large quantities of cannabis, thereby presenting opportunities for corrupt police officers to plant additional substances on people in order to extort money from them.
“In Canada 28 grams is fine because the cops aren’t extorting you, but here in Mexico maybe we need to increase the allowance or eliminate simple possession as a crime because we know what happens when the police have the opportunity to demand money,” says Snapp.
“So the current concerns about police extorting or planting additional substances on people continue to be relevant and will be something that we will be following up on and documenting.”
Overall, therefore, it is clear that while the legalisation of cannabis in Mexico represents a huge step in the right direction, certain improvements to the bill would go a long way to ensuring the benefits of a legal market are fairly distributed. “The bill passed overwhelmingly in the Congress, where many spoke about the need to move away from prohibition and to respect human rights, liberty, and the benefits that will come with regulation,” says Snapp. “Hopefully with the bill’s implementation, we will see a greater focus on social justice.”