Legal Pot In Mexico: Everything You Need to Know

This summer, Mexico became one of a few countries to nationally legalize medical marijuana – but where will it go from here?

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto has said that he doesn't approve of national legalization in his country, but that opinion might be changing. Credit: Manuel Velasquez/Anadolu Agency/Getty

On June 19th, 2017, Mexico legalized medical marijuana, or more specifically, "pharmacological derivatives of cannabis" to be regulated and studied by the Ministry of Health. But, for now, Mexico's medical cannabis market will look much different than say, California's, which sells everything from cannabis flower to THC-infused massage oil. Currently, "cannabis derivatives" in Mexico, like oils and pills, must contain less than one percent THC. Although some activists are hopeful and working to change this conservative allotment, many believe that full cannabis legalization is what will help Mexico the most.

"This current law is so limited as to be practically useless. But we're headed in the right direction and the attitude is changing," says Laura Carlsen, political analyst and director of the Americas Program at the Center for International Policy in Mexico City. Here, what you need to know about Mexico's marijuana program, and where it might go from here.

What's legal so far? 
Mexico began changing its marijuana policy in 2009 when it decriminalized the possession of up to five grams, as well as small, "personal use" amounts of cocaine, heroin, and other drugs, in an effort to treat addiction as a public health issue rather than a criminal offense. Instead of jail time, those found in possession of substances are encouraged to enter treatment.

But the real change came in 2015, when eight-year-old Graciela Elizalde, who suffers from a severe form of epilepsy known as Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, brought medical cannabis to the public's attention in Mexico. CBD oil helped to drastically reduce her seizures and improve her quality of life, and so she became the first Mexican medical marijuana patient after a Supreme Court ruling in her favor. 

Since then, a medical cannabis bill has passed through both the Mexican Senate and the Lower House of Congress with an overwhelming majority, and President Enrique Peña Nieto signed the bill into law on June 19th, 2017. Now, Mexico's Ministry of Health has until mid-December, to write regulations for medical marijuana, half the time the state of California is taking to write their adult-use regulations. If Mexico meets its deadline, products derived from cannabis could be available in Mexican pharmacies in early 2018 to help treat diseases like epilepsy, Parkinson's, and cancer.

With its new law, Mexico has joined a handful of countries that have federally legalized medicinal marijuana, along with Canada, Israel, Uruguay, Puerto Rico and Germany – though notably not the United States. 

How popular is cannabis legalization in Mexico?
Mexico is a conservative country with 81 percent of the population self-identifying as Catholic. The Catholic Church has come out against pot, medicinal or otherwise. One of their main arguments against legalization is that it will encourage teenagers to start toking up. Although, as we've seen in Colorado, ending prohibition lowers marijuana use among teens instead.

The most popular Catholic newspaper in the country, Desde La Fe (From the Faith), published a couple of op-eds opposing legalization, claiming cannabis has no medicinal benefits and that the government saying so "confuses the public." A main argument for ending marijuana prohibition in Mexico is to help curb narcotraficante (drug cartel) violence. Yet the Catholic Church believes legalization will do exactly the opposite, and ended a 2017 editorial with the line, "In our sad horizon appears a sick and violent country," referring to a Mexico with legal weed.

But compared to the U.S., cannabis has less support from the public and is still heavily stigmatized in Mexico. In November 2015, just days after Grace Elizalde's landmark case, the Center of Social Studies and Public Opinion (CESPO) surveyed Mexicans and found 82 percent were against allowing cannabis sales and distribution in Mexico, 73 percent rejected legalizing it for recreational purposes, yet 76 percent approved legalizing it for medical use.

Up north, Americans have an opposite opinion of ending marijuana prohibition: 60 percent support full legalization according to a 2017 Quinnipiac Poll.

Legalization in the U.S. has had a huge impact on the public perception of cannabis in Mexico. In a recent interview with Cultura Colectiva, President Enrique Peña Nieto, who was previously against legalizing marijuana, said, "I'm not ruling out that in the near future marijuana will be fully legalized in Mexico. It's already occurring in other countries, particularly the United States."

Is full legalization in Mexico possible?
The momentum to legalize cannabis in Mexico is there, and no one has been more outspoken about this than former President Vicente Fox Quesada. In the past, Fox believed Mexico could fully legalize marijuana by 2018, but in a recent interview, he admitted Mexico's upcoming presidential election, scheduled for July 1st, 2018, could stall any progress on this front.

"We're getting into an electoral process for the presidency of Mexico," says Fox. "So I think it's going to be very difficult to advance during this period."

Fox is also working with Mexican politicians, like Fernando Belaunzaran, on legalization efforts. Belaunzaran, a former congressman, has been a proponent for legalizing cannabis in Mexico since he proposed a bill for full legalization back in 2012.

"I'm working with a couple of congressmen and senators that are very positive about the subject [of legalizing marijuana]. They've been pursuing, pushing, and promoting [the issue]," says Fox.

He also met with American activist and dispensary owner, Steve DeAngelo, on the matter during a recent visit to Oakland, California. He was in the Bay Area because he was the keynote speaker at the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) convention where he said that, one day, Mexico could produce up to 60 percent of all the legal weed in the U.S., and that cannabis should be incorporated into NAFTA.

But more than a cash crop, Fox views ending prohibition as the best way to fight cartel violence in Mexico.

"It's the very first step to start taking away from cartels all the money they get from this illegal activity," says Fox. "This is a slow process, but I'm sure it will happen one day soon."

Could legalization hurt cartels?
There is a long history of drug trafficking, political corruption, and violence in Mexico that is all closely intertwined. On December 11th, 2006, then-President Felipe Calderón launched a "war on drugs" that escalated violence and insecurity in Mexico to new heights.

There are many reasons Calderón's war intensified violence. For one, his "kingpin" strategy to dismantle cartels backfired, destabilizing organizations causing a violent internal power struggle, which also gave life to new, smaller, and reportedly more dangerous gangs.

But another main cause of the spike in violence, especially homicide and "disappeared" people, was his militarization of local law enforcement, and his massive increase to Mexico's security and military budget.

Corruption seeped into the municipal police and the military, despite efforts to fire corrupt individuals, making Calderón's militarization dangerous. A 2009 study from the Justice in Mexico organization found that 93.6 percent of municipal police in Mexico depend on corruption to make a living wage. Considering 61 percent of officers made 4,000 pesos or less per month in 2009 (the equivalent of about $300 in 2009), it's not surprising.

"One of the big problems with prohibition is that it gives corrupt and abusive law enforcement forces a major justification for shakedowns," says the Center for International Policy's Carlsen.

Since Mexico's war on drugs began in 2006, it's been estimated around 200,000 people have been killed. But even that is a hard number to estimate in a country where 30,000 people have been reported missing, and mass-graves of unidentified people are frequently found in the countryside.

But many believe this violence is a reason to end marijuana prohibition.

"When people have legal, regulated places to buy marijuana, it takes the whole business out of the hands of organized crime," says Carlsen. "Marijuana is a huge chunk of cartel income. Without that income there is an automatic reduction in their capacity to buy weapons, recruit teens, bribe politicians. Prohibition is the best thing that ever happened to organized crime ­they couldn't survive a day without it. So as we dial back the disastrous prohibition regime, cartels are forced like any business to downsize. They lose market, lose demand, reduce production and lose power to control territory and communities."