Mexico Could Soon Become the Largest Legal Marijuana Market in the World

Mexico Could Soon Become the Largest Legal Marijuana Market in the World

Mexico Could Soon Become the Largest Legal Marijuana Market in the World

But activists say the law fails to address the widespread pain that decades of militarized enforcement have caused.


When a crew of cannabis activists reached the Mexican Senate here in Mexico City in February 2020, shovels in hand, they started digging up the yellow-tipped bushes near the security check, then the knee-high grass that surrounds the plaza. They planted skinny cannabis stalks, and smokers dropped their own cannabis seeds into a glass jar, each one a tithe for their cause. The operation was a gleeful but pointed jab at the politicians inside, who had used marijuana and other drugs to justify an ongoing war, carried out in partnership with the United States, that had made Mexico one of the most violent countries in the world. They were far more likely to be taken out by a bullet, the activists said, than by smoking a joint. They wanted to make sure reform would be done right.

The stunt was just the latest sign that Mexico’s marijuana-legalization movement, which once consisted of a handful of protesters, had transformed into a diverse and vocal lobby. The seeds this movement planted are finally yielding results: After decades of strict drug policy, Mexico’s congress is expected to pass a federal law this year that would for the first time create a legal cannabis trade in the country—the Senate passed the bill in November, and the lower house is set to vote on it this spring. But many of Mexico’s marijuana proponents are still opposed: The bill would allow for a cannabis industry on terms that they say favor corporations, and would still impose fines and prison sentences on people without connections or power. If the current version passes, advocates ask, who would the law be for?

The idea that a country owes something to its citizens as it starts to undo some of its mistakes is not a new one, but Mexico seems to be stumbling as it at once admits that past administrations’ drug policies failed while also doing little to undo the militarized enforcement that got the country into its current morass of violence. Though the Mexican Cannabis Movement, which organized the garden outside the Senate, is representative of only one faction in the legalization movement—they believe in no limits on marijuana possession for personal use—the pall that settled over their camp after senators passed the bill last year was palpable. Guadalupe Espejel, a psychologist with a Velma-style bob, was dismayed: As she puffed on one of the thin glass vapes she sells, she explained that the law would still leave people like her at risk of arrest—or at the very least, police might continue to ask her for bribes. “This plant has been stigmatized for over a century,” Espejel said. “This isn’t a step forward, it’s a step back.”

Spaniards brought cannabis to Mexico in the 16th century to make hemp, which was used at the time in ropes, sails, and paper. The plant moseyed across the country, but was smoked by few. As Isaac Campos argues in Home Grown, his meticulous history of the plant in Mexico, marijuana slowly gained a negative connotation in the country when it became associated, misleadingly, with Indigenous people, and more justifiably but luridly, with prison inmates and the soldiers who fought the decade-long Mexican Revolution beginning in 1910. In 1920, the revolutionary federal republic banned marijuana. That law, which barred substances that could “degenerate the race,” has remained in place for over a century now.

Though the United States wouldn’t effectively outlaw marijuana until 1937, Mexico’s neighbor to the north always exerted an outsize influence on the country’s drug laws: Harry J. Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, once told Congress that marijuana could lead to “homicidal mania,” and, according to journalist Nacho Lozano’s book, Mariguana a la Mexicana, blamed Mexicans for bringing it to the United States amid high rates of unemployment during the Great Depression. When Mexican health officials briefly tried to take over the sale of drugs to so-called addicts for a few months in 1940, Washington quashed the experiment by threatening sanctions. President Richard Nixon vowed to crush the drug trade in 1971 in a push that one of his closest advisers later admitted was driven by a desire to crack down on African Americans and Vietnam War protesters. “Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did,” John Ehrlichman told a Harper’s Magazine writer in 1994.

To this day, the vast majority of Mexicans insist they have never even tried the plant. But the war on drugs that Nixon launched, and that has been carried out with varying degrees of ferocity by every American president since, has nevertheless left deep scars on Mexican society. As early as the 1940s, the United States was pressuring Mexico’s military and police to carry out drug busts, as Mexican criminal groups sated US demand. After a drug trafficker killed a US agent in Mexico in 1985, the Mexican military began destroying thousands of hectares of marijuana and poppy crops each year, and for their part, the criminal networks began spending even more to convince authorities to permit their operations. When President Felipe Calderón came to office at the end of 2006, one of his first acts was to deploy the military to quell the drug trade. The unbridled violence that followed, spanning the past 15 years, has led to unimaginable levels of suffering:

Moreover, of the hundreds of thousands of people who have been detained as a result of this war on drugs—226,667 in the first three years of Calderon’s presidency alone—few have been leaders of illicit operations. Instead, farmers who made a pittance growing drugs, low-level couriers who’d been roped into the trade, or Indigenous people who were not given language interpreters to defend themselves were all swept up into Mexico’s ballooning detention system.

The current government, under President Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador, promises that the drug war is now over. In 2009, Mexico legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana and in recent years, urban cannabis businesses have popped up, offering everything from specialty distillates to artisanal edibles. Some dealers insist that they buy directly from growers—the farm-to-table model—to try to give consumers a cleaner conscience. But this alternative market is limited and easy to shut down, and cartels still control the cheapest stuff you can buy. That’s why legalization advocates held out hope for federal legislation that could break the cartels’ grip on the trade, get people out of prison, and bring some sanity back to the sale of the plant. But by now, they say, making one plant legal—even making all drugs legal—cannot undo the past damage.

In the mountains of Guerrero state, Omar Gonzalez used to be a farmer who sold poppy for heroin and tried his hand at growing cannabis. But he told me that as the prices of those crops have dropped, criminal groups have diversified their business into extortion and kidnappings. In 2018, he and half his town fled. Though Gonzalez has considered a farmers’ cooperative for cannabis, he doesn’t know if that’s a realistic hope: “The climate lends itself to growing, and the land, too, but drugs have led to a lot of conflict, which has led to displacement,” he said. “We could try to make people aware that there’s now a way to make a living, but the armed groups and their system will still exist.”

“Many people have left for the US, and have sought political asylum. Others are going now without papers,” he said. “Many people have refused to be displaced, and a bullet will kill them.”

In the early years of the drug war, activists slipped legislators proposals to change the cannabis ban. Analysts hosted forums and academics released studies to try to change views, but lawmakers didn’t budge. A group of lawyers thought that the only way to get the politicians and the public to listen was through the courts. The problem was not getting high, they’d tell the judges, but the state interfering with people’s constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.

Andrés Aguinaco, one of the lawyers who picked up the court battle for legalization, first saw marijuana in his grandmother’s garden. She was the wife of a former Supreme Court judge, the kind of upstanding citizen that defied the stereotypes about the plant. She would leave it in a bottle of alcohol or oil, then rub the ointment on rheumatic joints. The Catholic church had scorned the plant; television networks turned it into a bogey-man; even musicians vilified it in songs like “La Cucaracha,” a ballad to a traitorous and drunk general of the Mexican Revolution: “The cockroach / can’t walk anymore / because it doesn’t have marijuana to smoke.” To change public opinion, Aguinaco thought, they’d need to use people like his grandmother.

So Aguinaco, his university buddies, and the nonprofit think tank Mexico United Against Crime selected four members of Mexico’s elite to form the Mexican Society of Responsible and Tolerant Personal Consumption. Their argument was simple: That individuals should be able to grow marijuana at home, and then smoke it. The first plaintiffs, who were all part of the think tank, were the center of the strategy, and their acronym, SMART, was deliberately cheeky.

“The activists were so blacklisted,” said Aguinaco. “We could only [win with plaintiffs] from Mexico’s big legal firms, people with doctorates, political scientists: the kind of people who might sit down to eat with a judge from the Supreme Court, or run into one at a wedding.”

It worked. In 2015, to people’s shock, they won. The Supreme Court ruled that the federal ban on recreational cannabis was unconstitutional. Most of the public was opposed to the ruling, and that year, and at least a third of the over 13,000 people in state prisons for drug-related crimes were there for marijuana. Another case that year, of an epileptic girl whose parents sought to use cannabis extracts to control her seizures, helped change minds. Aguinaco and his colleagues would win four more cases before the Supreme Court over the next few years, making the court’s decision legally binding in 2018.

“Once the court ruled in the first case, it was only a question of time,” said Armando Santacruz, a founder and owner of industrial-materials company Grupo Pochteca and one of the plaintiffs. He had, by the point he went to court, been a smoker for nearly forty years, but when the newspaper El País asked him about it days before the first ruling, he said that he had just tried marijuana, “so did Obama and Al Gore.” He didn’t want to create too much scandal.

When he used to visit his grandmother’s ranch in Chihuahua as, at night he could see the glow from neighboring ranches where workers packaged dried marijuana. Back then, as a teen, he could hitch rides with friends there. Now, middle-aged, he was tired of the bloodshed. Santacruz’s own sister, a chef who had run high-end restaurants, would become another one of Aguinaco’s plaintiffs.

The day of the last Supreme Court decision, a crowd gathered outside the courthouse. Nobody beyond the handful of people who had won their cases could plant seeds leftover from their joints at home—but the larger legal argument had been won.

“[Doing away with complete prohibition] was the lowest hanging fruit,” Aguinaco said. “Then you’re left with the question: now what?”

In some ways there is no precedent for what Mexico is undertaking. The push to legalize here does not look quite like that of other places, where either a president backed a law, or the public has voted in favor. It has a longer tradition of growing marijuana than Uruguay, which was the first country to legalize the plant’s use nationwide, in 2013, and to start selling it for recreational use, in 2017, with a state monopoly on production. Mexico is warmer than Canada, which was the second country to pass a federal law that allows the plant’s sale, in 2018, and so it’s expected it’ll be cheaper and easier to grow here legally.

Mexico’s cannabis market is projected to be worth $5 billion within a few years, according to the National Association of the Cannabis Industry. Canadian and US companies are ready to swoop in. Former Mexican president Vicente Fox has prepared his ranch for planting cannabis. Medical marijuana, which was legalized in 2017 but not allowed to be sold domestically until 2021, is its own pharmaceutical gold. Hemp and cosmetic products loom large in the minds of investors.

Drug reform is a global trend. Fifteen states across the United States have approved marijuana’s use for, recreational use, more for medicinal use. In Europe, psychedelics famous on the party circuit are being studied for psychiatric treatments. But in Mexico, where, for so long, people have been convinced cannabis is taboo, the bill still comes as a surprise. Some even say there’s no way it’ll pass, despite the Supreme Court’s rulings.

The bill that passed the Senate would allow the formation of an institute to issue licenses to cannabis clubs and businesses. Forty percent of growing licenses are destined for Indigenous people, communal-land farmers, or those deemed vulnerable, a nod to the reparations debate. But it also contains several clauses that fall far short of activists’ original intentions. “Years ago, consumers decided to take a step toward more responsible use, by only consuming marijuana that had not passed through the hands of organized crime groups—‘marijuana without blood.’ Today we are opening the door so that all of it is bloodless,” said senator Patricia Mercado. “But still, we’re falling short.”

Under the bill, if you have more than 28 grams, you could be fined. If you possess more than 200 grams, you could go to prison for up to six years. For other cannabis crimes, it’s up to ten. Having more than eight plants in your own home would be punishable with jail time. Authorities can go into your home to check. You cannot smoke anywhere within sight of kids, nor in a public space where they could theoretically walk by. A separate amnesty law that went into effect last year made people who were sentenced in the past for possessing small quantities pardonable, and yet so far nobody has been pardoned.

It’s not that having so many rules is hair-raising, so much that it’ll be easy for officials to continue to skim the public’s money, then skimp when it comes to rights, critics say. In the aftermath of November’s Senate vote, advocates took to Twitter. “They’ve given the whole cake to the industry, there will even be a market for junk food/sugary drinks with weed,” wrote one. “Total shame,” wrote another. “Our drug policy will continue to be, above all, an instrument of foreign interests,” wrote a third.

Those who had advocated on behalf of small farmers were irate that they’d have to meet the institute’s general requirements of tracking, packaging, and testing all their seeds and plants. Many of these farmers who had once dabbled in cannabis had no savings: When states across the country started to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012, demand fell for Mexico’s exports. For criminal groups, other drugs, such as fentanyl and methamphetamine, were far more lucrative. Plans to cut into traffickers’ proceeds had become almost moot. But the farmers were still poor.

Mexico isn’t alone: The idea that new, legalized markets should be engineered to assist people harmed by previous drug prohibition hasn’t gotten far elsewhere. In Colombia, the 2017 medical cannabis law carved out 10 percent of the market for smaller growers, but their partnerships with foreign companies have stagnated and many still operate illegally. In Canada, only 2 percent of companies’ leaders are Indigenous and 1 percent are Black Canadians, The New York Times reported.

Mexico’s lower house is supposed to vote on a version of the bill by the end of April. If it makes any changes to the bill, it will have to be sent back to the Senate, and then signed by the president. There are whispers that lawmakers might try to delay, but it’s expected to pass. Once signed by the president, the rollout of the law will be staggered: Within six months, the new regulatory institute should start granting some licenses. It’ll take a year and a half before the sale of weed that could get you high—”psychoactive cannabis,” the law calls it—will be able to be sold or grown at home.

The day after the debate over the bill, the Mexican Cannabis Movement activists blocked the intersection in front of the Senate. They livestreamed a march around the garden, insisting they’d fight the bill. “We’ve got a national movement and we want to see occupations in every state. So write to us, tell us where you are, and if there are people organizing in your state, we’ll put you in touch,” said Miguel, the garden’s top grower, in a live-stream in December. (He asked that we not include his last name out of fear of targeting by law enforcement.)

Miguel offered a tour of what they’d done throughout the year: the PVC pipes they’d set up to experiment with hydroponics; the hemp, which they’d crowded together so it turned out thin but tall; the marijuana, which under netting branched like a candelabra. He had warded off fungi, and sprouted new roots with lentils and aloe, to make a garden that he thought represented the future. But the legislators seemed unmoved. Some suggested people like him were asking for too much.

“I’m a second-generation cultivator. My father also grew marijuana, and he was a stoner. When I was born, he was in prison, and he spent more than 20 years of his life there, for crimes related to marijuana,” Miguel said in the online video in January. “I want the plant to be free, so that all the people who are now in prison for being a smoker or a grower are free, too.”

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