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Still a Long Way to go Before Marijuana Becomes Legal in Mexico

Wednesday's supreme court ruling allowing four individuals to grow and consume marijuana has opened the possibility of forcing reform in the future and triggered an unprecedented debate, but the legalization is still a long way off.

by David Agren
Nov 5 2015, 9:06pm

Imagen por Eduardo Verdugo/AP

A marijuana-themed magazine in Mexico was always going to represent a challenge to the authorities who have the power to prohibit publications considered to run counter to "proper customs." Yet now that the Mexican supreme court has opened the door to the possible legalization of recreational use of the drug, the magazine's publishers feel that they have morality-based regulations on the back foot.

"Let's celebrate the beginning of change!" the magazine Cañamo México posted on its Facebook page after the court voted on Wednesday in favor of permitting four individuals to cultivate, transport and consume marijuana for fun. Subsequent posts focused on infographics detailing the ruling's consequences.

But it really is just the beginning, magazine publisher Leopoldo Rivera told VICE News, stressing that the ruling currently only refers to the four people named in the case and that four more similar rulings are required before the legislature would have to reform existing prohibitive laws. The magazine is hoping to obtain one of them.

"We're celebrating because the ruling recognizes the rights we have as citizens," Rivera said before adding, "Mexico is barely opening the path for cannabis."

Related: Mexico Just Took a Big Step Towards Marijuana Legalization

The fact that the battle is far from won yet for the legalizers was underlined by the government's response to the ruling that stressed the ways in which marijuana remains unequivocally illegal.

"The growing for commercial purposes continues being prohibited. Supplying it continues being prohibited. The commercialization continues being prohibited and each one of these actions continue in the law as a crime," presidential legal counsel Humberto Castillejos told reporters. "It is the obligation of the federal government to comply with the law and continue with operations."

But the ruling also obliged President Enrique Peña Nieto — who has said that he has never smoked marijuana in his life and is opposed to legalization — to make rare unscripted comments to the press that hinted that the government could be open to change.

"It is clear that this opens a wide debate," the president said. "It is also clear that I will have to make wider comments."

The supreme court's decision has already triggered a degree of debate on the issue never before seen in Mexico where legalization is opposed by the majority of the public in the context of almost a decade of an offensive against drug trafficking cartels and the associated violence that has killed an estimated 100,000 people.

Related: Where Mexico's Drug War Was Born: A Timeline of the Security Crisis in Michoacan

One of the interesting elements behind the new Mexican debate is that it began with the court bypassing the usual discussions associated with drugs in the country by focusing its decision on individual freedoms and whether the penalties associated with marijuana are proportionate with the damage it does.

"It was not a debate on whether marijuana is harmful or not, which is prone to political posturing, or on whether legalization will help curb violence or weaken organized crime, which is also prone to politicking — and which it won't," Jorge Kawas, a security analyst in the northern city of Monterrey, told VICE NEWS. "Violence is more significantly linked to the transshipment of other more profitable drugs and commodities, as well as other types of rent-extracting crimes [such as kidnapping]."

The disquiet at both the ruling itself and the focus on citizen rights has been particularly clear within the Catholic Church.

"It's a very worrisome decision," said Father Hugo Valdemar, spokesman of the Archdiocese of Mexico City. "I don't think it is appropriate for a society that suffers a serious problem of violence, especially narcotics trafficking."

Valdemar also said the ruling was "opening the doors to a population that is not very prepared," reviving the church's complaint that the supreme court has been acting like a "super power" advancing contentious social issues, like same-sex marriage.

The Mexican Society for Responsible and Tolerant Self-Consumption (SMART) — the activist group behind the supreme court case — pursued a similar legal strategy to the proponents of same-sex marriage who won a series of court cases and created "jurisprudence" earlier this year. 

SMART member Francisco Torres Landa says the group went to court because congress didn't act on marijuana legalization. Lawmakers decriminalized the possession of small amounts of drugs in 2009, but the changes left it illegal to purchase drugs and kept stiff administrative fines in place.

"You don't go to jail, but you have to pay 300,000 pesos every time they catch you. It's a complete lie," Torres Landa told VICE News, adding that the goal isn't unfettered access to drugs. "What we're saying is the government should regain its ability to regulate this market and it should be able to protect people against any illnesses or physical problems that require treatment." 

Members of SMART say they are not just celebrating the ruling itself, but the sense that they are already beginning to shift public opinion.

While recent polls still show the vast majority oppose legalization, they also indicate a dramatic increase in support for medicinal marijuana. Activists credit this, at least in part, to the extensive media coverage of another recent case in the supreme court — the struggle of the family of an eight-year-old girl called Grace to obtain marijuana-based medication to help control her constant seizures.

Some observers agree that it is highly possible that opposition will quickly soften if liberalizing legislation is approved, pointing to the way decriminalization of abortion and same-sex marriage in Mexico City in the past decade has played out in public opinion.

"People were initially against (abortion and same-sex marriages,) but once the new policies were put in motion, public opinion started to come around," said Arturo Rocha, a professor at the CIDE university in Mexico City, who studies drug policy. "It's plausible to hope that, after this verdict, public opinion moves even more positively toward the approval and regulation of cannabis."

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

Follow David Agren on Twitter: @el_reportero