Mexico: First Debates on Marijuana Legalization Held

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MEXICO CITY, Mexico – Two months after the Mexican Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation (SCJN) voted to open the door to potential legalization of marijuana for recreational use on the basis of personal freedom, the Mexican government has held the first of five forums around the country concerning possible full legalization in the future.

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In late November, speaking in response to the SCJN’s decision, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto said that he would honor a “serious debate and discussion” about the possibility of eventual legalization despite his “personal objection” to such a change.

“Despite being personally against any legalization of marijuana, I accept that an intensive and public debate on the issue would permit the nation and our laws to arrive at a different position,” Peña Nieto said. “My truth cannot be everyone else’s, in all aspects of politics and life, marijuana included.”

In response to the judicial decision and the national leader’s words, the federal government has called for five forums in five cities that will last until early April.

The first of these forums, titled “Public Health and Prevention” and centered on the health impact of marijuana use, was held in the coastal resort city of Cancún in the southeastern region of the country. The forum was attended by Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong and Roberto Borg, the Governor of the State of Quintana Roo.

The Interior Ministry invited citizens to participate in the forum by establishing an official government website filled with information like “the legislation of marijuana legalization from 14 different nations” and important documents including academic research, releases from global health and security agencies and Mexico-specific proposals on legalization.

The first of the forums is part of Peña Nieto’s tentative two-fold plan: the first stage consists of a “wide-ranging debate carried out by citizens and experts in medicine, criminology and other specialists on the pertinent topic.”

Depending upon how this discussion period plays out and the conclusions reached, the second stage would then involve the participation of the Mexican legislature in defining the future national policies concerning marijuana legalization, including a possible re-working of the regulatory framework that would allow for amendments to the current laws.

The first stage is set to conclude by April 5, when the results of the forums and the key points will be gathered and put into a report. That report will then be made public as Mexico is due to give a national presentation later that month before the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) in New York City, and the conclusions from the forums will help “shape Mexico’s position on the topic at the UN,” according to Osorio Chong.

Although the first forum intended to put forth the statements of those both for and against legalization, the voices “against” were practically nonexistent.

Ramón de la Fuente, a medical doctor by training and former rector of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the nation’s most important educational institution, was firm in his words.

“The prohibitionist system that has been the law of the land has clearly failed to decrease the use of marijuana, or any other drug for that matter, and in fact, use has only risen,” he said, and noted that “there are hundreds of thousands of Mexicans in jails nationwide” simply for being in possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Indeed, under current law, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans are imprisoned every year for petty crimes related to drug use, growth and/or production and possession, putting even more stress on the nation’s notoriously overcrowded and overburdened judicial and prison systems.

The UN details that over 60 percent of prisoners in the national penal system of Mexico have been convicted of at least one drug-related crime as the international drug trade with the United States has ballooned to billions of dollars annually and strengthened Mexican cartels and drug lords to previously unseen levels. Of those convicted of drug-related crimes, nearly 60 percent of the cases dealt specifically with marijuana.

Manuel Mondragón, another medical doctor and current National Commissioner Against Addictions (CONADIC), a commission under the arm of the National Secretariat of Health, made his opinion that “no person should be in jail for consuming marijuana” clearly known.

The center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) is the only political force in Mexico that is unequivocally in support of legalization while Morena, another left-wing party, is leaning toward legalization. Peña Nieto’s big-tent but right-leaning Institutional Revolutionary Party and the conservative National Action Party (PAN), however, are both against.

Breaking with his party line, PAN Senator Roberto Gil (who is the current head of the Senate) highlighted the plight faced by some 10,000 Mexican women with no past criminal records who are imprisoned for marijuana possession. “Tens of thousands of children, as a result, are growing up without their mother,” Gil said of the women facing seven to ten years in prison for their crime.

Raúl Elizalde, the father of the 8-year-old girl who was given the first medical marijuana use authorization in Mexico for her severe daily epileptic seizures in October of 2015, was also in Cancún for the forum, and he also rallied for nationwide legalization of marijuana for medicinal and private consumption purposes.

The case of the young girl put the wheels in motion for the current hearings; the ultimately-successful proposal put forth by Judge Arturo Zaldívar on behalf of the Mexican Society for Tolerant and Responsible Consumption (SMART) was approved by the Supreme Court just weeks after the girl’s case put marijuana in the headlines.

Since SMART’s previous proposals were denied by the Health Ministry (who approved the girl’s plea), the group then went before the Supreme Court which, in essence, approved the constitutionality of the possible future legalization of the consumption of marijuana by upholding the judicial appeals of four people that asked for constitutional protection including the consumption, sale, distribution and supply of marijuana.

Since the consumption of marijuana in Mexico is technically legal, albeit in practically microscopic amounts, the Health Ministry rejected SMART’s proposal on the health basis and thus, SMART then appealed to the courts on non-health and judicial grounds: marijuana cultivation (including its sale and consumption), distribution and possession on the basis of “right of publicity,” protected under the Mexican Constitution.

The decision of the SCJN was that “absolute prohibition is unconstitutional” given the health risk comparisons between marijuana and alcohol or tobacco, two legalized and taxed substances. As such, that absolute prohibition of marijuana is disproportionate and excessive and violates an individual’s autonomy and constitutional rights as they can choose to consume alcohol or tobacco legally but not marijuana.

For now, the ruling only applies to the four plaintiffs of SMART but in theory, it opens the door to full future legalization and spurred the President’s actions in calling for the forums and debates.

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