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Mexico Just Took a Big Step Towards Marijuana Legalization

The historic decision by the Mexican supreme court allows four individuals the right to grow and transport marijuana for their own recreational use and opens the way for similar cases that could eventually force full legalization.
Imagen por Alexandre Meneghini/AP

Mexico's Supreme Court has voted in favor of allowing four individuals the right to grow and transport marijuana for their own recreational use in an historic decision that represents a major step towards legalization in the future.

Four out of five of the judges supported the landmark proposal that was drawn up by one of them who based his arguments on the constitutional right to the "free development of the personality" as well as the disproportionality of sanctions for marijuana compared with those associated with alcohol and tobacco.


"This is a tremendously powerful decision that could open the way for real change," said Armando Santacruz, one of the four activists behind the case that began with a request to form a cannabis club in 2013. "We've made history. It's a hole in the dike but its the first hole in the dike"

The ruling only directly refers to Santacruz and the other activists, though it also establishes a precedent for similar cases in the future. Four more favourable rulings would establish jurisprudence and require the federal legislature to reform Mexico's prohibitive laws.

"Our objective was always to change drug policy in this country which is one of the main motors for the violence, corruption and the violation of human rights in Mexico," Santacruz told VICE News.

The law in Mexico currently prohibits pretty much everything to do with marijuana aside from possession of five grams or less, which activists have long claimed is all but irrelevant given that few consumers buy such a small amount.

The wave of laws legalizing marijuana in parts of the US over the past few years prompted several liberalizing initiatives in Mexico, but these have all since ended up getting stuck in legislative commissions.

Related: Legal Pot in the US Is Crippling Mexican Cartels

Activists hope that the ruling will encourage legislators to return to the issue that holds special significance in Mexico given the country's position as a major producer of illegal marijuana and the home to some of the world's most powerful drug trafficking organizations.


According to a 2012 study by the CIDE university 60 percent of convicted prisoners in federal prisons were sentenced for drug offenses. The proportion rises to 80 percent for female inmates. Though part of this is associated with the country's brutal drug wars, many of the inmates were arrested with relatively small quantities of soft drugs.

President Enrique Peña Nieto has tended to be rather shy of addressing legalization. Even while others across the continent have made impassioned statements, the Mexican president has only vaguely called for a debate on the issue without doing anything obvious to encourage it beyond expressing his personal opposition without going into detail.

The reluctance of most Mexican politicians to fully embrace the debate has often been explained with reference to opinion polls showing overwhelmingly opposition to legalization of all illegal drugs, including marijuana.

A poll carried out by the company Parametría last month indicated that only 20 percent of those asked approved of legalization for recreational use, while 77 percent opposed the idea.

Though this is around the levels registered in the US in the 1970s, activists can take some comfort from the fact that that the opposition registered in the poll in 2008 was 92 percent.

Parametría has, however, also noted a dramatic rise in public approval for the medical use of marijuana that jumped from 48 percent last year to 81 percent in the latest poll.


Related: An 8-Year-Old Girl Just Became Mexico's First Medical Marijuana Patient

The lead up to Wednesday's ruling, meanwhile, prompted a string of government officials to make their opposition to legalization far clearer than they had done in the past.

Manuel Mondragón, who heads the National Commission on Addictions, said that legalization would increase consumption and addiction.

"I don't want any of those involved in this famous liberalization to become addicts," Mondragón said in a speech last month. "I don't want them to become marijuana addicts, I don't want a society addicted to marijuana."

Arturo Escobar, deputy interior minister for crime prevention, linked the ruling directly to the infamous leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán who is once again at large after his spectacular escape from maximum-security jail in July.

"Liberation is much worse than contention," Escobar told the usually government-friendly newspaper El Universal. "Mexico does not want to make a businessman out of Chapo Guzmán."

Related: El Chapo's Alleged Escape Team is Jailed, but the Drug Lord Avoids Recapture

The paper also carried an interview this week with deputy secretary for higher education Salvador Jara who said that legalization "could have a very very negative impact because it could break with important traditional cultures in Mexico and damage the social fabric."

Wednesday's Supreme Court ruling comes after a meticulously planned legal strategy that began in 2013 when four veteran activists with deliberately respected positions in business and academia formed a group called the Mexican Society for Responsible Consumption and Tolerance, known by its Spanish acronym SMART.


SMART then sought permission to form a cannabis club from the health ministry knowing that this would open the way for a future case on personal freedoms once the permit was rejected for contravening the law.

The case was then systematically kicked up the judicial system until it reached the supreme court. Once there it was embraced by one of the court's most progressive magistrates, Arturo Zaldívar, whose proposal was voted on Wednesday.

"This is a watershed decision," author and long-time supporter of legalization Hector Aguilar Camín told Radio Formula. "We have to start separating out the substance from the hell produced by its persecution."

Celebrating the ruling, activist Santacruz said that while he also favors legalizing other drugs, it was still too early to broach the subject in Mexico. "I wouldn't dare to put this up for debate right now," he said. "We will have to let society see that the sky doesn't fall with marijuana first."

Related: Michoacan, the Birthplace of Mexico's Drug War, Is Still a Violent Quagmire

Follow Jo Tuckman on Twitter: @jotuckman