Drug War Dystopia Continues as Mexico Waits to Legalize Cannabis
Mexican lawmakers are predicting legal cannabis by the month’s end, and portraying it as a key to de-escalating the endemic narco-violence. But national headlines are full of nightmarish cartel violence, making all too clear how big the challenge will be.
The clock is ticking in Mexico, where the country’s Supreme Court has mandated that Congress pass a cannabis legalization measure.
A 90-day deadline initially imposed by the high court in October 2018 has been extended by the magistrates twice already. The current deadline is set to expire April 30 — but lawmakers now pledge they will pass the new law by the end of February.
Julio Menchaca, president of the Senate Justice Commission and a leader of the center-left Morena party, told news site Enfoque Noticias on Feb. 11 that Mexico’s lawmakers hope to have the legalization measure “out of the Senate this month.”
Menchaca said lawmakers had heard much testimony from medical experts, cannabis users, would-be entrepreneurs and other stakeholders, and are ready to act.
In comments that same day to Politico.mx, Menchaca said that legal cannabis “will be an element of peace in the country. Prohibition has generated so much violence over the past 100 years, as well as the creation of organized crime.”
A regulated cannabis sector, he said, would be an opportunity for “peace, tranquility and the participation of the campesinos in a legal framework.”
Equity for the Campesinos?
Mexico’s campesinos, or peasants, have long been reduced to virtual serfdom by the cartels, forced to grow illicit cannabis and opium poppy on pain of deadly retribution. Bringing them into the regulated sector will be critical to undermining the cartels.
The proposed bill would create a Mexican Institute for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis to oversee all aspects of the industry — from cultivation to retail sale, medical and recreational.
Under the bill, penalties will be removed for possession of up to 28 grams (about an ounce), with unlicensed possession of up to 200 grams essentially decriminalized, punishable only by a fine. A regulatory regimen will be established for production and marketing.
Encouragingly, the president of the National Farming Council (CNA, by its Spanish initials), Bosco de la Vega, has announced his support for the law. “We are ready for this industry,” he told reporters.
But getting agribusiness on board is not what will bring peace to Mexico. A secure place in the new economy for the campesinos, who have long borne the brunt of the narco-violence, will be the real challenge. And the outlaw economy is so deeply ingrained, especially in poor or remote areas, that day-lighting the campesino communities with legal cannabis will certainly pose a challenge.
A grim analogy may be provided by the outrageous case of two campesinos slain in apparent targeted assassinations in the state of Michoacán in January, both of whom had been working at the world-famous Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. They had been hoping to attract eco-tourists to the reserve, so the mountainous area can have an economy based on standing forests rather than illegal timber-felling. But this was apparently perceived as a threat by the local timber mafias.
Narco gangs in Michoacán broadly overlap with local mafias that illegally exploit timber on protected lands, and have also co-opted the state’s avocado industry to launder illicit proceeds and maintain a legal cover for land-grabs, leading to warnings of “blood avocados.”
Michoacán, just as famous for its marijuana as its avocados, was also the scene of the latest entry in the wave of killings of journalists in Mexico.
Fidel Ávila Gómez, news anchor for a local affiliate of La Ke Buena radio network, went missing on Nov. 29. His body was found Jan. 7 near the border of Michoacán and Guerrero states. Family members told the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists that his efforts to uncover local narco-corruption may have put him in the crosshairs of La Familia Michoacana, the state’s notorious reigning cartel.
These cases illustrate the entrenched terror network poised to resist the daylighting of a significant sector of illicit economy.
U.S. Policy Not Helping
Evidence is always emerging of how this systemic narco-corruption goes to the very highest levels of the Mexican state. Mexico’s former secretary of public security Genaro García Luna was arrested by U.S. authorities in Dallas on Dec. 10, charged with accepting multi-million-dollar bribes to allow the infamous Sinaloa Cartel to operate. He will face trial in Brooklyn, where Sinaloa kingpin Chapo Guzmán was last year convicted.
García Luna was the head of Mexican law enforcement from 2006 to 2012 — precisely the period when the war on the cartels was being militarized, and the narco-violence was spinning out of control.
Things may be cleaner at the top since Morena took over in 2018. But there is still an entrenched power structure in Mexico that has much invested in illicit cannabis, and resisting the emergence of a regulated industry.
Then there was Donald Trump’s distinctly unhelpful suggestion to designate Mexico’s drug cartels as “terrorist organizations.”
“At some point something has to be done,” Trump said in an interview with Bill O’Reilly. “Look, we are losing 100,000 people a year to what is happening and what is coming through on Mexico.”
Later, Trump tweeted: “All necessary work has been completed to declare Mexican Cartels terrorist organizations. Statutorily we are ready to do so.”
A few days later, a town just across the Texas border saw a spectacularly horrific shoot-out on Nov. 28, 2019. Ten presumed cartel gunmen and four police were killed in the gun-battle in Villa Union, just outside the border city of Piedras Negras.
And in the border city of Matamoros, an actual refugee camp has sprung up, as thousands of asylum seekers wait for their claims to be heard in the U.S. This is a bitter fruit of Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, under which those fleeing the violence in Central America and Mexico must wait on the Mexican side of the border while their U.S. asylum claims are pending.
Legal cannabis could be a significant step toward de-escalating Mexico’s long narco-crisis. But if it is not crafted with care and courage, it may not live up to its potential. And, as ever, U.S. policy is not helping.
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