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Medical Marijuana, Decriminalization, and Opium: 2016 Looks Big for Drugs in Mexico

Spurred into action by a supreme court ruling, Mexico could soon start legalizing medical marijuana, and raise the threshold for decriminalized consumer possession. It might even start considering licit domestic cultivation of cannabis and opium.
Photo by Ulises Ruiz Basurto/EPA

Mexico could legalize certain forms of medical marijuana as well as raise the threshold for what is considered decriminalized consumer possession by the end of this year, and may begin considering licit domestic cultivation of substances including cannabis and opium, say senior officials and experts.

Last November, Mexico's supreme court ruled that in the case of four individuals, cannabis prohibition was a violation of human rights enjoyed under the country's constitution. The case, which was part of a calculated move by advocates in lieu of legislative action, set off two parallel reviews of Mexico's drug policy, at a cabinet level, and in the country's Senate.


Speaking at the UN's Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, Luis Alfonso de Alba, Mexico's ambassador to Austria and chief diplomat on matters of narcotics policy, said that the cabinet-level review would conclude by next month. Its findings will be released to coincide with a special session of the UN General Assembly on drugs (UNGASS) in New York that begins on April 19.

Since 2009, criminal penalties have been lifted for possession of small quantities of certain drugs, including up to five grams of cannabis and half a gram of heroin. Decriminalization activists have long argued that these thresholds are risibly small, and De Alba predicted that legislators would raise them by this fall.

"That five grams of marijuana may be too small, too restrictive if we are talking about personal consumption," said De Alba. "Some greater tolerance on consumption may be the result. They may move it to 10 grams, or 15 grams."

Related: Mexico Just Took a Big Step Towards Marijuana Legalization

De Alba was ambassador to the UN in New York in 2012 when Mexico, along with Colombia and Guatemala, called for the drug-centric session of the General Assembly. After decades of bearing the violent burden of a failed interdictions drug war, some Latin American countries have pushed for a softening of prohibition. In New York, the three countries hoped that the drug session — the first since a largely hardline convening in 1998 — would recognize the failure of past policies, which have only witnessed an increase in drug use globally, along with greater suffering. With less than a month to go, the reality remains complex internationally, as conservative countries like Russia and China hold back progressive elements in a document that member states are expected to adopt.


In Mexico, while the supreme court decision made waves, the federal government has remained cautious about changing laws, and President Enrique Peña Nieto has come out against cannabis legalization — a step that could fall afoul of the three UN conventions that govern global drug policy, but one that has already occurred in Uruguay and four US states. There has also been no softening of the Mexican government's stated commitment to a military-led crackdown on trafficking groups which many observers say has fuelled drug-related violence in the country.

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"What we are seeing is a division between the senate and the executive, where the senate has clearly a more open and liberal approach than the federal government," said Aram Barra, an activist from a pro-legalization NGO called Mexicans United Against Crime (MUCD) who was involved in bringing the November case. "The federal review has had a very clear prohibitionist discourse from the very beginning."

Barra and other advocates and experts contend that without clear legislative action, merely inching up the floor for decriminalized possession still leaves users at the whim of what are often corrupt police forces. Cops, say some reformists, could still drag alleged drug users into stations to weigh substances, extract bribes, or even plant drugs above any new threshold.


Lisa Sánchez, another leading advocate and member of MUCD, said the organization declined to partake in the series of public meetings held around the country designed to inform the government review, in part because of the anti-legalization remarks made by Peña Nieto and others in his cabinet.

"It was a debate on cannabis use, so it was whether or not cannabis is right or wrong, which we refuse to debate," she said. "We consider that the supreme court ruling took the debate beyond whether cannabis use should be authorized or not."

As the national dialogue chugs along, some officials have floated more controversial moves to combat drug-related violence in Mexico. While murder rates have fallen since reaching a peak in early 2011, more than 175,00 Mexicans have been victims of homicide in the last nine years, a toll largely tied to the drug war and cartel violence. The downward tendency has also now plateaued out, with some signs it could be reversing.

This month, Hector Astudillo, governor of Guerrero, a mountainous southern state where an estimated half of all heroin consumed in the US originates, proposed that some small farmers be allowed to grow opium poppies licitly for medical use.

"Let's try a pilot program," Astudillo told Mexican TV channel Milenio. Giving farmers a legal market, he said, could allow "an exit that could help distance ourselves from violence."

In Vienna, De Alba said potential domestic cultivation of both opium and cannabis could be possible as part of an effort to solve limited access to certain medications.


'If we have a more modern legislation to facilitate access to medicines, we may start producing those medicines… maybe opium in some regions and maybe cannabis also'

Last fall, Mexican health officials allowed the importation of a marijuana-based pharmaceutical for a girl suffering from a rare seizure-inducing disorder, but there is currently no institutionalized legal regime for importing, producing, or using cannabis for medical purposes. That could change by the end of the year, said De Alba. Other analysts predicted Mexico would follow several US states that allow drugs that contain certain cannabinoids with no psychoactive properties.

De Alba said that for a variety of reasons, including ill-informed doctors and stifling bureaucracies, access to internationally controlled opioids, including morphine, is difficult in Mexico. "It's a problem for all developing countries," he said.

"If we come with a more modern legislation to facilitate access to medicines, we may start producing those medicines," he said. "And that may be opium in some regions and maybe cannabis also… if we can produce it, even better."

But in Mexico, Governor Astudillo's remarks were met with widespread skepticism, even among civil society advocates. Many wondered how institutions that struggle to contain common corruption — and that in a state like Guerrero cannot even create the conditions allowing people displaced from poppy-growing areas by drug gangs to go home — could successfully establish a legal market or cultivation regime that makes a dent in illicit production.


"If you are going to do this, I'm not sure the mountains of Guerrero is the best place," said Alejandro Hope, a leading security expert in Mexico. "You don't do it in a place where the state has very little presence or it has very little control."

Only a small number of nations, including Turkey and India, currently grow opium poppies legally. The International Narcotics Control Board, a quasi-judicial oversight body established by the UN, would have to approve any bid by Mexico to join that club.

But for some Mexicans, no proposal that promises to address drug violence, however novel, can simply be ignored. It was in Guerrero, in the town Iguala, where 43 students were attacked and then disappeared by municipal police in league with a drug cartel in 2014, setting off national backlash focused on complicity between authorities and traffickers.

Related: Ayotzinapa: A Timeline of the Mass Disappearance That Has Shaken Mexico

"The 43 students has to do with control of poppies and opioids," said Catalina Perez Correa, coordinator of the Research Consortium on Drugs and Law (CEDD) in Mexico. "There is a big demand to deal with the cost that it's having for specific states like Guerrero, where there are huge illicit markets that represent a lot of money and power that these organizations have to corrupt."

"I think it's a serious petition and a lot of people have said it before," said Correa, referring to possible licit cultivation. "The problem is the only way that can happen is if the federal government asks permission from the UN."


Legal domestic cultivation of cannabis may be more palatable to the authorities, but even that could run into roadblocks.

Hope said it was likely that the government would allow "for imports of compounds made out of cannabinoids for therapeutic purposes, maybe allowing some domestic manufacturing of drugs, but certainly not a California style of mass medical marijuana," referring to the widespread availability of the cannabis plant through dispensaries in the state. Hope added that It was also likely the floor for personal use would be raised — he predicted as much as an ounce of cannabis would be decriminalized — and it was possible an amnesty for users currently in jail could be declared.

"That's basically where you'll find some consensus," said Hope. "I don't think there is the will right now to go much further than that."

But a backlog of cases before Mexican courts could push the government's hand. Under Mexican law, if four cases related to November's are decided at the supreme court by similar majorities, and go in favor of reformists, it would create jurisprudence.

"There is an avalanche of similar cases moving down the judicial pipes, and that could open up the center far more than what happens on the legislative side," said Hope.

Indeed, Barra said his colleagues were looking forward to at least four additional cannabis-related filings that could go beyond the November decision, namely by providing clarity on what forms of possession and consumption are allowed. "We have enough cases to resolve the issue at the supreme court," he said. "So if the legislative side doesn't change the law we will simply attempt to create jurisprudence."


Though there is often agreement among advocates and experts on widespread decriminalization, a model that proved successful in Portugal over the past decade and half, there is no consensus on whether drugs like cannabis should be outright legalized and regulated.

Related: Opposition to Weed Legalization Unites Mexico's President With One of His Harshest Critics

"Above all you have to attack political corruption and private sector corruption in order to start considering regulating drugs like Uruguay is doing, or as Colorado or Washington State are doing," said Edgardo Buscaglia, a senior research scholar at Columbia university and leading expert on international organized crime.

Doubtlessly, such a program in Mexico would be a mammoth undertaking laid next to Uruguay, for example, a country more than 35 times smaller, and where officials have cast legalization within a longstanding centralized and statist approach to public health.

"Mexico doesn't comply with the minimum requirements for implementing any kind of regulatory framework… and at the state level it's even worse," said Buscaglia.

But the variable that is arguably most important to Mexico is one they have no control over: legalization of marijuana in American states and, to a lesser extent, in Canada. This year, more than a dozen states, including California and Arizona, will vote on whether to authorize regulated markets for the drug. The Canadian government has already announced plans to legalize cannabis — a promise they reiterated to member states at the UN in Vienna last week.


'In Mexico the problem is not the domestic markets, it's about exports.'

The drug-related violence that has plagued Mexico and other Latin American countries is inextricably tied to demand farther north. Despite clear indications of this, the focus of anti-narcotics programming and funding was for decades tied largely to eradication in producing countries — not to addressing the demand side. That is starting to change, and there is already some evidence that legalization in the US has cut into cartel profits, though also signs that traffickers are experts at adapting to market changes by prioritizing the production of other drugs.

"In Mexico the problem is not the domestic markets, it's about exports," said Hope. "What we want is for the US to legalize, not for Mexico to. Once the export market is gone then that's it."

De Alba, the ambassador, said Mexico would keep a keen eye "on what's going to be the evolution in the US, particularly at the border level."

"If states like California or Texas change their legislation, that would have a more direct impact on Mexico than Colorado has had," he added.

Related: The Year in Mexico's Drug Wars: A Jailbreak, a Chocolate Cake, and a Washed-Up Strategy

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford