Mexico’s Senate recently voted 98-7 to approve legislation that would grant citizens access to medical marijuana. The bill, which now heads to the lower Chamber of Deputies for consideration, offers further evidence that the country’s long-standing anti-pot approach may be starting to crumble.
But the bill is by no means a silver bullet, and for those hoping decriminalization will bring an end to the cartel-fueled violence surrounding the country’s drug trade, the road to victory remains long.
Mexico has historically enforced strict anti-drug policies. That enforcement-first approach extends to cannabis users, and a recent survey cited by the New York Times shows that an estimated 60 percent of Mexico’s prison inmates are sentenced on marijuana-related drug charges.
Mexico also doesn’t boast especially high public support for legalization, with only about a third of the country openly supporting safe access.
But last year, Mexico’s Supreme Court settled a case in which four plaintiffs were awarded the right to grow marijuana for personal use. Justice Arturo Zaldívar wrote an 88-page opinion that emphasized an individual’s right to engage in recreational activities that do not present a threat to others, and since that ruling, progress has come in spurts.
The country now allows a few patients to import medical marijuana products and to cultivate marijuana for personal use. While these permits only addressed cannabis on a case-by-case basis, they have indisputably helped pave the way for the larger triumph of a medical marijuana bill in the senate.
Assuming it passes the Chamber of Deputies, the new medical marijuana bill will permit cannabis to be grown in Mexico for medical or scientific purposes. The Supreme Court’s decision last year only permitted the use of high-CBD strains, but the new legislation would allow patients to consume THC-rich products as well.
Furthermore, the bill would make the purchase and sale of industrial hemp legal. According to a summary of the bill released by the Senate, the country’s Health Department will be made responsible for “[designing] public policies to regulate the medicinal use of this plant and its derivatives.”
Some senators, like Cristina Diaz Salazar, a member of President Enrique Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, see the bill as a “historic step.”
Others, like Sen. Armando Rios Piter of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, see it as having little consequence.
“To celebrate that we are making a material change on marijuana would be fooling ourselves at this stage of the game,” he said, explaining his ‘no’ vote.
Rios Piter acknowledged that legal cannabis could bring significant relief to Mexicans suffering from chronic pain and other ailments, but his greater issue — one echoed by many — is that the bill will do little or nothing to diminish the power of the drug cartels.
Although marijuana is just one of many sources of income for the cartels (with other lucrative avenues including narcotics smuggling, human trafficking, extortion and kidnapping) it still represents about one fifth of their total revenue — approximately $1.5 billion U.S. per year.
Paradoxically, the quickest route to curbing the strength of the cartels may have less to do with legislation in Mexico than drug policies in the United States, which continues to provide much of the market for Mexican-grown cannabis, despite the proliferation of quality, U.S.-grown herb.
Even so, the value of this new bill cannot be written off — it will hopefully provide access to those who need it most, and free many innocent people from unreasonable jail sentences.
While it may not provide solutions to the larger problems economic and security issues facing the country, the bill represents a significant stepping-stone towards drug reform for a country desperately in need of it.
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