The road to Mexico’s cannabis legalization has taken several strange twists. In some ways, the country has strict laws regarding drug production and possession. In other ways, it has led efforts to decriminalize personal possession so law enforcement could focus on large-scale traffickers.
In March 2021, Mexico took a significant step towards nationwide legalization of recreational marijuana for adults. The Chamber of Deputies, a legislative branch similar to the U.S. House of Representatives, voted 316 to 129 in favor of legalization. The law will not go into effect until the Senate votes and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador signs the approved bill. Most experts believe that the final steps towards full legalization are mere practicalities since Mexico’s president has expressed support for the legislation.
A Brief History of Cannabis Prohibition in Mexico
Mexico passed a law prohibiting the possession of cannabis nearly two decades before the U.S. federal government passed restrictions. In 1920, Mexico passed a law making cannabis possession, production and sale illegal. Some local bans had been in effect since 1882. Mexico’s federal government added penalties to production and sale in 1927 when it made exporting cannabis an offense.
These laws started to change in 2009, but it was a 2015 Supreme Court ruling that put the country on a clear path to legalization. However, it would take time for the changes to influence cannabis use and criminal behavior.
Cannabis Cultivation and Exports
As is often the case with prohibition, Mexico’s earlier laws created a lucrative black market and turned casual cannabis users into criminals. Cannabis cultivation continued in Mexico, and a significant percentage of it flowed across the northern border into the U.S.
The amount of cannabis crossing the border has dropped over the last decade, though, likely because Mexico and many U.S. state governments have loosened restrictions on the plant.
The U.S. Border Patrol reports having seized about 1.54 million pounds of marijuana in 2015. In 2017, the U.S. Border Patrol reported that it seized about 861,000 pounds of cannabis, nearly a 50% reduction.
Important Moves Toward Cannabis Legalization in Mexico
The drop in cannabis exports from Mexico to the U.S. line up with changes to Mexico’s drug laws and enforcement.
Cannabis Decriminalization in 2009
Mexico’s legislators made a small—but critical—step toward sensible cannabis laws in 2009 when they decriminalized small amounts for personal use. The government believed that it was wasting resources by targeting personal users. It wanted to redirect those resources to large-scale dealers and exporters, many of whom were committing violent crimes across the country.
The new law gave people the choice of paying a fine, spending some time in jail or attending a drug rehabilitation program. Unfortunately, the law described an absurdly small amount as the “personal use” limit. Anyone with over 5 grams of cannabis was subject to criminal liability for drug possession. So people could only own slightly more than an eighth of an ounce. Purchasing a quarter, half-ounce or ounce could lead to time in prison even though most people would consider those amounts suitable for personal use.
Supreme Court’s 2015 Decision
In 2015, Mexico’s Supreme Court voted 4 to 1 that the government committed a human rights violation by preventing people from growing cannabis for personal use. According to the court, the laws violated an individual’s right to develop their personality. Interestingly, surveys showed that only 20% of Mexico’s residents supported legalization and 77% opposed it.
Ideally, the Supreme Court’s decision would have immediately given every individual the right to cultivate and use cannabis. But It would take several years before the federal government made the proper moves to change its laws.
Medical Cannabis Use Becomes Legal in 2017
In 2017, both chambers of Mexico’s legislative body easily passed a law that would allow people to use medical cannabis for certain ailments. The law, however, more accurately resembles the U.S. Farm Bill than a push to legalize marijuana. According to Mexico’s law, medical cannabis could not contain more than 1% THC.
For comparison, many modern strains of cannabis contain 20% or more THC. Anyone looking for a high from Mexican medical cannabis would need to use a large amount of the product.
Supreme Court’s 2018 Decision
By 2018, the Supreme Court had ruled five times that the government could not enforce recreational cannabis prohibition. The justices seemed to have reached their limit with frivolous lawsuits. They decided that the current federal laws could remain in place, but the government should not enforce them. The court told the federal government it had 90 days to legalize cannabis for adults.
Not surprisingly, the federal government could not reach this goal. To be fair, 90 days is an incredibly short amount of time to change laws, develop regulations and determine how legal distribution would take place. The court understood the challenging nature of its demand and extended the deadline to December 15, 2020.
The Mexican Congress missed the deadline, but it made promising moves toward legalization and sensible regulation. The Supreme Court continued extending the deadline, perhaps because the government was making a good faith effort.
Now that the Chamber of Deputies has passed a recreational marijuana bill, it’s only a matter of weeks or months before the bill becomes a law. No one expects that the law will give Mexican residents instant access to legal cannabis. It will take time to establish licensing procedures and decide on other details. People will not be able to walk into a cannabis dispensary to purchase products, but they will not need to worry about possessing cannabis.
What Legal Marijuana in Mexico Means for the United States
Mexico’s evolution toward recreational cannabis legalization could significantly pressure the United States to make similar changes at the federal level. Currently, the U.S. federal government considers cannabis a Schedule I drug, meaning it does not have any medical applications and has a high potential for abuse. Of course, more than half of U.S. states recognize the medical properties of cannabis, creating a legal gray area that makes some businesses and investors nervous.
The fact remains that the United States will soon become the only large country in North America that prohibits cannabis possession. Canada ended federal cannabis prohibition in 2018. The U.S. will sit between two major countries that do not prohibit cannabis as long as sellers follow industry regulations and users enjoy products in private.
Legalization Means Ample Business Opportunities for North America
It seems unlikely—or at least unwise—for the United States to remain the only large country in North America to prohibit cannabis, especially considering the tremendous growth of legalization at the state level.
Canada, Mexico and the U.S. could work together to become a leading supplier of cannabis throughout the world by getting ahead of other countries’ laws. Currently, more governments have learned that they must at least tolerate the personal use of cannabis. Charging everyone who carries a few grams has become expensive and pointless, especially considering that easy access to legal marijuana shows a significant correlation with decreased opiate use and overdoses.
If the United States does not choose to legalize cannabis, it will miss one of the biggest trade opportunities of the century. As more countries in Europe legalize marijuana, North America could supply strains backed by celebrities and established brands. Canada and Mexico are already posed to reap the benefits. Does the U.S. really want to lose millions or billions in exports?
Mexico Proves That North America Will Evolve
Mexico prohibited cannabis long before the United States, and most of its population doesn’t support legalization. Despite these challenges, Mexico managed to make sensible changes to its drug laws. Depending on the next steps it takes, the government could use legal cannabis as an important source of tax revenue to fund infrastructure and economic development projects. (Canada collected $186 million in taxes within five and a half months of legalization.)
In the United States, about 67% of residents support legalization. Only 32% support prohibition, and that percentage is dropping fast. Between 2009 and 2019, the percentage of people supporting prohibition fell by about 20%.
Given these facts, it seems implausible that the U.S. could not follow Mexico’s lead.