The Supreme Court Is Forcing Mexico to Legalize Weed, Sort Of

The country's highest court voted that the prohibition of marijuana was unconstitutional after legalization law stalled.
June 29, 2021, 4:48pm
A man smokes a pipe during a demonstration demanding the legalization of marijuana for recreational use, in front of the Senate in Mexico City on April 20, 2021.
A man smokes a pipe during a demonstration demanding the legalization of marijuana for recreational use, in front of the Senate in Mexico City on April 20, 2021. Photo by ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP via Getty Images.

MEXICO CITY - Mexico's Supreme Court voted that laws prohibiting the use of recreational marijuana were unconstitutional on Monday. The vote came after the Mexican Senate and Congress have repeatedly failed to finalize a Supreme Court-mandated cannabis legalization bill that has now missed three separate deadlines.

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But while certain laws prohibiting recreational marijuana have now been erased, weed is hardly legal in Mexico.

Lisa Sánchez, a prominent Mexican drug policy activist and director of the civil association Mexico United Against Crime, called the supreme court decision “very technical” but said: "If I had to translate it simply, the court recognized that the use of cannabis is protected by human rights."

The court ruling ordered the Mexican government to issue permits for personal marijuana use and the cultivation of small amounts of cannabis plants for any citizen 18 or older who applies. These kinds of permits have existed since 2015 but only for those who filed a court injunction.

However, the majority of cannabis restrictions still remain after the vote.

“There will be no permits for planting outdoors, there will be no participation of companies. Marijuana is not going to be sold in retail, nor be able to commercialize marijuana grown in homes. You can't consume marijuana in public space. And health crimes, drug crimes, these remain intact,” Sánchez told VICE World News. “Thus, marijuana trafficking will continue to be a crime in Mexico, weed dealing will continue to be a crime in Mexico, the eradication of illicit crops will continue to be an activity of the Mexican government.”

For years, Mexico has been drafting cannabis legislation that would address most of these issues, in a seemingly ever changing law that continues to be batted back and forth between different levels of the Senate and Congress. On April 30, the government missed a third deadline to pass legislation, but unlike previous deadlines, no official request for an extension was ever submitted.

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The blatant disregard for the Supreme Court mandated deadline sparked the body to vote on the constitutionality of five existing marijuana laws that prohibited personal use which the court had previously ordered to be modified years prior.

Although the recent vote does not mean that the new legislation currently being hammered out is guaranteed to pass, Sánchez believes that “it generates a lot of pressure on the Legislature, because it basically corrected a law that now remains without regulation.”

The Mexican government is set to once again debate the new federal cannabis law in September in what many hope will finally be the end of a process that has dragged on for years. But activists have long maintained that the latest versions of the law are flawed. Some of the more controversial aspects were an article that still allowed for fines and prison time for simple possession, a complicated and potentially expensive application process to become a legal grower or seller, and the removal of affirmative action programs that gave special privileges to communities affected by prohibition, for example, rural growers who saw their crops destroyed by authorities over the years.

“We have to continue pushing to make changes to the law and I think that [legislators] will just probably start from scratch and do a whole new law that will have components that have already been approved,” said Zara Snapp, co-founder of the Mexican research and advocacy organization Instituto RIA. “So this is a first step and it's the conclusion of the Supreme Court process. But Mexico will continue to and will need to continue this process in order to really reap the benefits of legal cannabis in Mexico.”

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If Mexico does pass a federal legalization law it would become only the third country after Uruguay and Canada. But Mexico's population of roughly 130 million would make it by far the largest legal weed market on Earth.

“The Senate and the Congress still have work pending on regulating the entire market, if we want to have a regulated market with dispensaries and licenses and taxes, tax income revenues, etc,” Snapp said. While she considered the Supreme Court decision “historic”, she reiterated that “it's important it remains clear that there's still a whole part of the market that is not being contemplated with this change that happened.”

“What does it mean for our average grower or dealer? Nothing. Nothing changes for that person except that they could grow for their personal use now if they want to,” she said.

An underground cannabis grower in Mexico City involved in a weed trafficking network around the metropolis told VICE World News that they were “surprised” by the vote even though it doesn't change much for their business.

“It's gonna continue the same until the legislators approve and regulate it,” said the grower, before reflecting that overall, the Supreme Court vote was a good thing.

“To have made (prohibition of personal use) unconstitutional, I think, it benefits everyone.”