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Mexico inches toward legalizing marijuana

bizO-Pacheco_Jerry_BizOThe United States has a very sensitive relationship with Mexico pertaining to illegal drugs.

It is constantly claiming that Mexico has been lax in assisting in the interdiction of illegal drugs that are produced or staged in Mexico and shipped to destinations within the U.S. American policymakers and would-be presidential candidates point to the corruption within the Mexican government that is fueled by the billions in revenues of illegal drugs that Mexico’s cartels send to the U.S.

Mexico always responds with the obvious: There would be no illegal drug problem between the two countries if U.S. drug users were not creating this lucrative market.

Years ago, admitting to or being accused of drug use in Mexico was shameful. I remember when calling somebody a “marijuano/marihuano” (pot head) in Mexico was an insult. During the past two decades, Mexico has seen its internal drug use rise, much as is the case in developed countries. As northbound illegal drug shipments have risen since the 1960s, powerful officials in the Mexican government allowed a tolerance for drug gangs and cartels to conduct their operations, as long as they did not disrupt the nation’s normal course of business.

A supporter of marijuana legalization wears a lucha libre wrestling mask decorated with a marijuana leaf outside the Supreme Court in Mexico City on Nov. 4. (The Associated Press)

A supporter of marijuana legalization wears a lucha libre wrestling mask decorated with a marijuana leaf outside the Supreme Court in Mexico City on Nov. 4. (The Associated Press)

On the other hand, if you were a Mexican citizen caught with an illegal drug, such as marijuana, you were subject to prosecution, heavy fines and possible jail time. In 2009, the Mexican government changed the law to decriminalize small amounts of possession depending on the particular drug. For personal use, drug users were allowed up to 5 grams of marijuana, 50 milligrams of heroin, 40 milligrams of cocaine, 0.015 milligrams of LSD and 40 milligrams of methamphetamine. People caught with amounts below the maximum limit were no longer subject to criminal prosecution.

And now, the law could be changing even more drastically in Mexico. A group called “la Sociedad Mexicana de Autoconsumo Responsable y Tolerante (the Mexican Society for Responsible and Tolerant Consumption or “SMART” by its Spanish acronym) filed a lawsuit claiming that Mexico’s historic approach to drug policy infringed on private rights and has been ineffective in a general sense. Furthermore, SMART argued that there is no hard evidence that the legalization of marijuana could result in increased drug use and the underworld that it creates.

In response to the suit, this month, the Supreme Court of Mexico ruled in favor of SMART, and declared that the four individuals representing this group will now be able to grow and distribute marijuana if it is for personal use. The Supreme Court stopped short of ruling that Mexico’s drug policy, as it affects individual citizens, no longer applies. However, this initial ruling has the potential of revamping that nation’s drug policy by allowing Mexican citizens to grow and consume marijuana for personal use.

The ruling creates a series of questions on many levels. First, how will this affect the dynamic of Mexico’s internal drug structure and will this have any effect on the cartels? Because the U.S. is the biggest illegal drug consumer in North America, and most likely the world, allowing Mexican citizens to grow and consume their own pot is probably not going to affect the cartels in a major sense. However, if the law is applied in the macro sense, it will probably embolden certain people to produce not only for their own consumption, but also to overproduce for commercial purposes in order to make a little money. This could open up a whole new can of worms and result in a contrary effect.

Secondly, the ruling will have a way of normalizing marijuana as a subject in Mexico. After the Supreme Court handed down its verdict, Chihuahua Gov. Cesar Duarte publicly announced the possibility that states such as Chihuahua could examine the possibility of producing medical marijuana for export. He stressed that this has to be studied carefully and all aspects need to be considered. This is certainly a progressive stance that would have been unthinkable for a Mexican governor to propose even a couple of years ago.

By easing its nation’s marijuana laws, could Mexico inadvertently attract foreign tourists who will not be so fearful of traveling to that country to partake of this drug? It is unclear if the changes in the law will apply only to Mexican citizens (most likely), not foreigners. However, could the apparent change in approach that the Mexican government is taking embolden foreigners such as Americans to visit Mexican cities, particularly in the border region, to get high?

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is expressing concern over the Supreme Court’s latest ruling and the speculation of what it means for the country in the long run. The U.S. government, with its own debate over the legalization of marijuana, will also be watching closely.

Jerry Pacheco is the executive director of the International Business Accelerator, a nonprofit trade counseling program of the New Mexico Small Business Development Centers Network. He can be reached at 575-589-2200 or at