What impact will the legalization of cannabis bring for the people of Mexico
What impact will the legalization of cannabis bring for the people of Mexico with the bill now under consideration in the Senate and is expected to be passed?
In early March, Mexico’s lower house of Congress approved a bill to legalize and regulate recreational cannabis. The bill, now under consideration in the Senate, is expected to pass with some changes, and ultimately be approved by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. “The law should meet two goals,” Senate Majority Leader Ricardo Monreal said in April. “Reducing criminality and eliminating the prohibition that has led to thousands of people being imprisoned for having a few grams of marijuana.”
How likely are these two objectives to be met?
Of the two, the second goal is more easily achievable, even if it will require a concerted effort to make it a reality. An amnesty law for minor crimes, including cannabis possession, passed in April 2020, should have already led to the release of the 4,000 to 6,000 eligible people currently serving time for minor cannabis offenses. But one year on, these people are still in prison.
There are also concerns with regard to the current legalization bill, which calls for administrative detention for anyone caught with over 200 grams of cannabis and prison sentences for 14 kilograms and up because cannabis legalization alone will not solve the systemic issues of corruption and inequality in Mexico. As Lisa Sanchez, executive director of the advocacy group Mexico Unido Contra Delincuencia, or Mexico United Against Crime, put it, “This new system will not eliminate the incentives for police to continue to harass and arrest people who use cannabis, or to use these quantity thresholds to extort people who are caught in possession.”
As for the prospects for cannabis legalization in Mexico reducing organized crime and related violence, this is an even more arduous task.
Over the past 14 years and under three presidents, Mexico has tried and failed to crush drug trafficking cartels using a security-focused approach. The military intervention launched in early 2007 against organized crime groups by then-President Felipe Calderon’s administration led to a surge in violence. The country’s homicide rate tripled in just four years, from 8.1 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2007, Calderon’s first full year in office, to 23.5 in 2011, according to Mexico’s national statistics office, INEGI. The crisis proved to be an important catalyst for drug policy reform worldwide, but drug-related violence continued largely unabated domestically.
While various reforms were put in place during the presidency of Calderon’s successor, Enrique Pena Nieto, INEGI recorded 29.1 homicides per 100,000 in 2018, his last year as president. For comparison, the global homicide rate has remained relatively constant between 2007 and 2018 at approximately 6 per 100,000, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
In total, between 2006 and 2020, more than 288,000 homicides were committed in Mexico, with an estimated 150,000 likely related to organized crime. Another 73,000 people went missing or disappeared, according to Mexican government statistics cited by the U.S. Congressional Research Service. These numbers should be considered cautiously as estimates. In 2016, the Mexico Global Impunity Index published by the Center for Impunity and Justice Studies at the University of the Americas in Mexico City found that over 99 percent of crimes in the country went unpunished, and approximately 92 percent were never reported in the first place.
Cannabis legalization should not be about profit, but rather about helping Mexico take an important step away from a heavily militarized approach to illicit drugs.
Regardless of the exact numbers, however, no one would question the importance of reducing organized criminality and violence in Mexico. Can cannabis legalization under consideration alter this landscape? Mexico is, after all, a large producer and distributor of cannabis, with a relatively low prevalence of use but a sizeable adult population of 90 million. Taking cannabis revenue away from Mexican criminal groups, the argument goes, would diminish their power. A 2010 study by the RAND Corporation estimated Mexican criminal groups’ combined income from cannabis trafficking at $1.5 billion, or 15-26 percent of their overall revenue. Though it is unclear how that number has evolved in the past decade, there is widespread consensus that cannabis legalization in a growing number of U.S. jurisdictions has led these groups to steer away from cannabis and toward other harder drugs, such as methamphetamine and fentanyl, with no subsequent decline in violence in the country.
Regardless of the law’s potential impact on violence, the debate has rightly shifted from whether to legalize cannabis to the nitty-gritty of how to do so. From a social justice standpoint, low-level cannabis offenders clearly should not be facing prison or other harsh sentences. From a public health and safety perspective, putting quality control and distribution in the hands of the government poses fewer risks for people who use cannabis.
But regulators in Mexico still face a number of challenges that will need to be addressed beyond the passage of this bill and as part of the design of the regulatory framework. First, if regulation is too rigid and prevents too many people from setting up cannabis-related businesses, much of the market will remain illicit and thus driven by criminal groups. However, if regulatory requirements are not strict enough, this could lead both to a substantial rise in cannabis consumption and, more worryingly, the emergence of a powerful, Big Tobacco-style cannabis industry in a country already rife with corruption.
Second, to prevent diversion of legal products to the illicit market—something transnational tobacco companies have long been complicit in—seed-to-sales solutions will have to be put in place to monitor cannabis products across the supply chain, from cultivation to final retail transaction. Given the problems that industry interference has created in similar track and trace systems for tobacco, making sure these systems remain independent from the cannabis industry would go a long way to secure supply chains. And yet, without careful thought in formulating these regulations and support from government authorities in implementing them, these measures may prevent small growers and other communities that have been severely affected by cannabis prohibition from accessing the regulated market. This would in turn further empower large multinational companies in the legal market while leaving a substantial role for criminal groups to continue exploiting marginalized populations in the illicit market.
Last but not least, authorities in Mexico and other jurisdictions considering cannabis regulation will face significant pressure to create a commercial model instead of one more firmly grounded in a public health-oriented approach and led by nonprofits, benefit corporations, or public service providers. Canadian cannabis companies are already eyeing the Mexican regulated market, which would be the largest in the world to date, with a value estimated at anywhere between $3 billion and $22 billion within a few years. The tax revenue from such a potentially large sector will likely appeal to authorities. Though the bill in its current version includes an option for home growing and cannabis social clubs, the “overarching market structure continues to be a more U.S.-style commercialized model,” Sanchez notes. In an ideal world, cannabis legalization should not be about profit, but rather about helping Mexico take an important step away from a heavily militarized approach to the illicit market for drugs and toward one that helps reduce criminal groups’ revenue and power. And it should do this with a commitment to public health, social justice, and human rights.
It remains to be seen whether Mexico can once again serve as a catalyst for drug policy reform globally, this time not because of its vicious cycle of drug-related violence, but for its ability to navigate these complex regulatory challenges.