Far but near: Marijuana reform in Mexico?

The quest for a new “Mexican approach” to marihuana regulation
Jorge Hernández Tinajero
Monday, August 20, 2012

marihuana.jpgThe world-wide debate over cannabis reform appears to be gaining uncommon speed and unexpectedly it is in Latin America that the winds of change have greatest force. So where is Mexico in this panorama? There are currently eight Bills on the question of marihuana gathering dust in the annals of various parliamentary commissions.

Surprisingly – you might think- the debate in Latin America about changes in the international drug control system is at the forefront, since for decades the region has accepted Washington’s directives on the subject almost without a word of protest and because both left-wing and right-wing governments on the continent have been –or used to be – adamantly against considering other options of their own for dealing with drugs in the region.

Now however Latin America seems to be suffering from social unrest caused by the unprecedented growth of organised crime and its accompanying criminal activities, by the current system’s evident inability to cope with health emergencies like basic paste in the southern cone or to guarantee stability for its developed economy. This is the plight of the industrial north of Mexico, which during the last three years has suffered a wave of brutal violence.

Worldwide, circumstances are changing and the Latin American region is beginning to look at its options. Marijuana reform is emerging as the spearhead across the region and the rest of the world.

The Netherlands’ well-known tolerance towards the plant seems to have wavered recently with more restrictive measures for foreigners, especially in some cities on the border with Belgium and Germany, and the country now seems reluctant to continue the experience in other areas within its borders following unimpressive results. The upcoming elections in September will determine whether these measures continue elsewhere, through what is known as the “weed pass”, or if this will not be applied in other cities.

In Spain on the other hand, a move towards reform seems to be emerging that recognizes cannabis social clubs not only as a way of guaranteeing the rights of their consumers, but also as a source of income and fresh resources for the country’s strained economy. In Denmark, Copenhagen is still fighting for the central government to allow it to start up a pilot project creating municipal hashish and marijuana dispensaries.

Argentina and Brazil have widespread movements of growers who demand their right to form associations and combat the criminal networks and coca paste consumption, while Uruguay is proposing to tackle the same problem with a kind of state monopoly of marijuana production, distribution and control. In Chile, senators Fulvio Rossi and Ricardo Lagos Weber have presented a Bill to make it legal for people to grow their own marijuana for their own use and for therapeutic purposes.

Finally, more people now in the United States are in favour of the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes than against it, while fourteen states have decriminalised the plant in a variety of ways. Colorado, Washington and Oregon prepare to vote shortly on forms of regulating the cannabis market in plebiscites in November during the presidential elections.

And where is Mexico in this panorama?

All of these developments are important for the situation in Mexico, and added to the approaching change in the federal government, it is worth having a brief look at the chances of cannabis reform in Mexico, since it is highly likely that the incoming federal government will be obliged to abandon the intractable stance of President Calderon, and as a result will be responsible for examining the options most appropriate for the country. The next administration will have to recognise that:

• For over ten years a consumers’ movement has been emerging and is gradually gaining ground in the country. Its members have been clarifying their demands, which include the decriminalisation of cannabis use and that individuals should be able to grow their own plants as a way of undermining organised crime. A large sector in the business community supports the regulation and inspection of the cannabis market as a first step towards fuller regulation of other substances.

• Spanish and South American users embrace the cause of home growing basically because they only have access to bad quality cannabis or products adulterated by the mafias in charge of trafficking, but in Mexico the market seems to meet the most varied needs and tastes and suits everyone’s pocket. Home growing is left less attractive by the highly specialized market and faces legal constraints, as it is not allowed in any form.

• Since November 2007 to date, eight Bills on marijuana have been brought before Congress in Mexico. This is no coincidence; it is the gradual recognition of the fact that the substance and its users will inevitably become a part of Mexican society. All, without exception, are gathering dust in the annals of various parliamentary commissions: three at local level (the Federal District Legislative Assembly and the Mexican State Congress) and five at federal level (four in the Chamber of Deputies and one in the Chamber of Senators). The brief description below presents the essential features of the latter, since all drug legislation in Mexico is decided at federal level:

1. Senator René Arce Bill. Originally presented by the Democratic Revolution Party in the Senate, the Bill would make the State responsible for regulating all aspects of the marijuana trade in México: from production and distribution to regulated consumption. It condemns the inefficiency of the measures taken so far for controlling Mexico’s domestic drug consumption.

2. Deputy Victor Hugo Círigo Bill, which criticises the current system of supervision as ineffective and proposes measures for reducing the risk and harm to cannabis users by regulating its use.

3. The Conde Bill for users. Presented by the then Deputy Elsa Conde Rodriguez in the Chamber of Deputies, it aims to protect cannabis users from being considered criminals per se and proposes the elimination of the legal grey area by legalising home growing for people who meet certain requirements. This would provide a viable form of supply, giving users safe access to the plant by avoiding contact with criminal networks.

4. The Conde Medicinal Cannabis Bill. The Bill proposes that people who need cannabis for health reasons should be entitled to have safe and legal access to it. The State would be primarily responsible for supplying the demand by growing crops especially for the purpose.

5. The Conde Hemp Bill. This presents the fundamental difference between growing the crop for industrial purposes and producing it for use as a psychoactive substance. It points to the contradiction in the fact that Mexico can import and trade hemp products like paper, textiles, cosmetics, rope or oils, from their main trading partners (primarily NAFTA and EU FTA) but may not make them, as the plant is completely banned, and this is a waste of a good opportunity to develop several economic sectors.

Have these Bills any chance of being made law, at least in the not too distant future? It is unlikely, but they are an excellent starting-point for a debate which looms for the new incoming federal government in December, 2012.

These Bills have not been rejected, and seen together with new international initiatives, they are valuable precedents for finding – perhaps under new circumstances – a new “Mexican approach” to marijuana regulation. When the most recent of them was presented the worldwide boom in cannabis social clubs did not exist, and most people in the United States were not in favour of regulating marijuana.

Mexico is in an unprecedented position. The country must work for a reform that balances and analyses the change in the United States while being able to learn from and join forces with other countries in the region. It has a good card to play; the deck has a better mix than ever. The game has yet to start.

*Jorge Hernández Tinajero is the chair of the Comprehensive Drug Policy Collective (CUPIHD).