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Here's what's behind Mexico's radical move toward legalizing marijuana during its war on drugs

Here's what's behind Mexico's radical move toward legalizing marijuana during its war on drugs
Mexican soldiers haul away marijuana plants during a confiscation operation in Juarez, Mexico. (Associated Press)

Mexico may soon legalize marijuana, a radical shift for a country whose prohibition on narcotics has been at the heart of its long and violent war against drug traffickers.

Legislation submitted to Congress last week by the party of leftist President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador would regulate cannabis, allowing it to be grown, sold and consumed for recreational use.

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Proponents of legalization say it would reduce bloodshed in Mexico by weakening drug cartels and freeing up police officers and prosecutors to focus on more serious crimes. But the proposal has critics, including the Catholic Church, which holds significant sway in Mexican politics. A poll in Mexico last year showed a majority of respondents opposed legalizing marijuana.

Here’s more about where the legalization effort stands — and what may come next.

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What has happened so far?

The bill presented to Congress comes on the heels of two crucial Supreme Court rulings that in effect overturned Mexico’s ban on the recreational use of marijuana.

The rulings, issued Oct. 31, found that individual liberty to choose whether or not to consume the drug outweighs any potential downsides.

“The effects provoked by marijuana do not justify an absolute prohibition of its consumption,” the court said.

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The rulings followed similar decisions in three other cases. Under Mexican law, five like rulings establish jurisprudence.

Morena, the political party founded by Lopez Obrador, controls both houses of Congress, and political analysts believe the bill has a good shot at passing — probably sometime next year.

But that won’t happen without a fight.

Morena’s governing coalition includes a smaller, conservative party that has opposed legalization in the past. And while polls show Mexicans warming to the idea over recent years, a 2017 Consulta Mitofsky poll found 56% still oppose it.

Mexican soldiers burn seized cocaine and marijuana in the city of Acapulco.
Mexican soldiers burn seized cocaine and marijuana in the city of Acapulco. (David Guzman / EPA/Shutterstock)

Why now?

The legalization debate is playing out against a backdrop of record-breaking levels of violence.

There were 31,174 homicide victims in 2017, more than in any year since the government began releasing such data more than two decades ago. This year, Mexico is on track to surpass that record.

Lopez Obrador, who was elected in a landslide during the summer and takes office Dec. 1, campaigned on a promise to end the violence. He has declared Mexico’s military-led war on drugs a failure and has said he will consider a number of radical new approaches. They include amnesty for some nonviolent criminals involved in the drug trade, the creation of truth-and-reconciliation commissions and the decriminalization of some drugs.

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His pick for interior minister, Olga Sanchez Cordero, is a Morena senator and a former Supreme Court justice who has been a vocal advocate for legalizing marijuana. She co-wrote the proposed marijuana legislation, which blames the country’s escalating violence on what she called Mexico’s “prohibitionist” drug policy.

According to the bill, law enforcement officials have been unduly focused on prosecuting low-level marijuana offenses, often at the expense of investigating more serious crimes. It says 62% of Mexico’s prison population in 2012 had been convicted on drug charges — the majority of them for possession, cultivation or sale of marijuana.

What would the law allow?

The new law would allow individuals to grow up to 20 marijuana plants and produce up to 17 ounces of the drug each year, or roughly 1,440 joints.

Growing cooperatives of up to 150 people would be allowed, along with the right to smoke marijuana in public. Edible products would be banned.

The sale of marijuana would be limited to adults and in locations regulated by a federal institute yet to be created. The government would charge an as yet undetermined tax on marijuana sales.

Legalization has been broached before.

Former President Vicente Fox has been a vocal advocate of the idea and this year joined the board of directors of High Times, a magazine for marijuana advocates and aficionados.

In 2016, President Enrique Peña Nieto proposed a bill that would allow Mexicans to carry up to an ounce of marijuana, or about 84 joints. That bill stalled in Congress, although lawmakers did approve the use of medical marijuana in some cases.

Would the changes actually reduce violence?

The drug trade generates between $6 billion and $8 billion a year in Mexico, according to the Rand Drug Policy Research Center, which estimates that 15% to 26% of that comes from marijuana.

Legalization of pot in several U.S. states appears to have hurt the marijuana import business, with seizures by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol falling during the last decade, even as seizures of other drugs went up. Last year, 861,231 pounds of marijuana were confiscated at U.S. ports of entry, down from 2.4 million pounds in 2013 and 4.3 million pounds in 2009.

Some illegal drug producers have moved on to other crops, such as poppies, which flower across violence-ridden states such as Michoacan and Guerrero, and drug traffickers have switched to synthetic drugs such as crystal meth and fentanyl.

Cartels are also increasingly shifting to nondrug-related criminal activities, such as human smuggling, fuel theft and extortion. Security experts say more homicides are connected to those illicit activities than to marijuana, which means legalizing marijuana is unlikely to be a panacea for Mexico’s violence.

How else would legalization of marijuana matter?

Legalization would bring Mexico in line with Canada and several U.S. states that have dropped prohibitions against the drug in recent years. But it could put Mexico at odds with the U.S. federal government, which still classifies cannabis as a Schedule I narcotic, and which has invested billions of dollars in programs aimed at reducing the flow of drugs from Latin America.

Opponents of the bill have warned that it could lead to more addiction. According to a federal survey, 6% of Mexicans said they smoked marijuana in 2011. That number rose to nearly 9% in 2016. Those figures are still much lower than drug consumption rates in the U.S., where a 2017 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that nearly 40% of high school seniors had used marijuana over the last year.

Proponents say legalization could benefit Mexico in another important way: tourism.

Mexico's $20-billion-a-year tourism industry represents about 7% of the country's gross domestic product.

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Mexican Tourism Secretary Enrique de la Madrid said this year that he thinks “it is absurd that we have not taken the step” toward legalization. He said legalization should start first in Quintana Roo and Baja California Sur, states home to the resorts of Cancun and Los Cabos.

Both of those regions have seen a dramatic increase in homicides in recent years, in part as a result of battles for control of local sales of cocaine, marijuana and other drugs.

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