Mexico Is on the Verge of Legalizing Weed For 130 Million People

Cannabis activists are worried about who stands to profit from the bill, which promises to create the world's biggest legal market for marijuana.
November 20, 2020, 6:56pm
Weed farmer 2
An illegal marijuana farmer in Sinaloa, Mexico, where the plant has been cultivated for decades and helps support families. Photo by Deborah Bonello for VICE World News.

MEXICO CITY - Mexico’s Senate passed a controversial bill to legalize both industrial and recreational cannabis on November 19, weeks ahead of a December 15 deadline mandated by the country’s Supreme Court. The landmark cannabis legislation must now clear one final legal hurdle - a vote in the lower house of Congress - before Mexico’s population of roughly 130 million would become the largest legal weed market in the world. 

It was a strange sight inside the senate as some Senators tucked handkerchiefs with marijuana leaves in their jacket pockets. One party placed green alarm clocks around the room with the phrase “llegó la hora de regular”, or “Time to Regulate”.

“Without a doubt, this bill is going to be one of the most controversial we have ever had,” said Senator Julio Menchaca Salazar from the Morena party as he addressed the Senate. “But, our obligation is to establish the rules of the game.”

Menchaca has been one of the principal drivers of the current version of the law, which received last minute backroom addendums in the 48 hours prior. For many, when the law was read on the Senate floor it was the first time they learned what changes had been made.

While the bill passed in a landslide vote of 82-18, not all proponents of legalized cannabis are happy about the current version of the bill as it progresses through the Mexican legal system.

In a bizarre publicity stunt on Wednesday, two pro-cannabis Mexican senators, Emilio Álvarez Icaza and Indira Kempis Martinez, held a press conference to announce that they would vote against the law alongside a prominent activist named José Rivera in an outdoor patio of the Senate building. 

Rivera stepped to the podium with a tense demeanor and asked for forgiveness from the Jewish community, before comparing prohibition to a “subtle holocaust” over the past hundred years. Then, along with another activist, he put on an oversized coat in an apparent attempt to look like holocaust camp internees. He went on to compare the Mexican government to the Nazis due to the bill’s requirement for certain permits and the continued prohibition of smoking weed in public.

Finally, he fired up a joint on the government patio, which caused the Senate’s official Twitter account to turn off the live feed of the press conference.

His protest reflected a growing dissatisfaction with the bill that has seen numerous revisions over the past weeks and months.

“Mexico has taken a historic step in the right direction, however we are passing a law that does not fully decriminalize the activities related to the plant before regulating it,” said Zara Snapp, a legalization activist and co-founder of the Mexican research and advocacy organization Instituto RIA. She lamented that a number of parts of the law are actually a “restriction on the rights of people,” like the limits on home-grown plants and where people can smoke.

As the bill has been developed, legalization advocates claim it has been transformed to favor wealthy Mexicans and investors who can pay to enter the industry and large foreign marijuana producers who want to sell to the new massive market. They claim it will ultimately leave humble marijuana-cultivating communities, small Mexican-entrepreneurs, and local home aficionados with limited business opportunities.

Snapp specifically pointed to the last-minute modification removing limits on “vertical integration,” which meant companies could only receive a license for one of four aspects of the future cannabis industry: cultivation, transformation, research, and commercialization. Meanwhile, it provided the opportunity for multiple licenses to long-marginalized populations designated by the government to have been affected by prohibition. Now, the addendum opened up the opportunity to receive multiple licenses to everyone, including big businesses.

Before the lower house of congress votes on the bill, activists can still pressure politicians for changes to the law. But, if additional addendums are made, the bill will again need to go through an entirely new vote on the Senate floor - all before the looming December 15 deadline.

“We will continue to push for this to be a better bill until the last moment, and then we will work on the implementation,” she said. “Because we do believe that drug policy reform is one of the crucial steps towards peace building in the country, and if we do it with a social justice focus it will have the impact that we all desire here in our country.”