guest commentary

Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice,” but he might have added, expatriation creates new prejudices. My vice being coffee, legal marijuana was the farthest thing from my mind when I first started living in Mexico. At least by education, or by trade – giving private English lessons to those with the income to pay a private tutor – I’ve picked up the prejudices of the Mexican middle class. I may have grown up in the era when Mexico and marijuana were pretty much synonyms, but was soon disabused of the notion that it was an acceptable habit, but rather something indulged in by “nacos” (the kind of people dismissed in the United States as “trailer trash”) or shady types like gringos and the decadent rich. Mexico’s Supreme Court legalized cannabis in Mexico for non-commercial recreational use on October 31, 2018. However, the ruling did not fully legalize recreational use and allows regulations against cannabis to remain. The ruling opinion read, “that right is not absolute, and the consumption of certain substances may be regulated, but the effects provoked by cannabis do not justify an absolute prohibition of its consumption.” Commercial use and the sale of cannabis are both still illegal. Cannabis was illegal since 1920, personal possession of small amounts were decriminalized in 2009, and medical use for THC content less than 1% was legalized in 2017. I was greatly amused by my landlady when I first lived in Mexico City, a European countess in self-imposed exile, who went out of her way to live up to the decadent rich image. Even she kept her two or three joints locked up in her safe. Several years later, renting a duplex, my college kid neighbors were going to ridiculous lengths, to hide the occasional whiff of a few tokes. And today, in a news report from Tijuana, a woman was protesting the arrival of Central American migrants, because “they are smoking marijuana.” So it is a surprise that within a month or so, marijuana for not just medical use, but for personal consumption will be legal, and that the new law has broad public support. Attitudes haven’t changed, but the landscape has. The U.S. Sponsored “drug war” was never particularly popular, and the appalling death toll has been too much, even for social conservatives to swallow. The incoming president campaigned not just on lowering the impact of the drug war, but on agricultural reform as well. It is hard to say that another export crop, and the families that depend on growing exports are a social problem. Economic conservatives, like ex-President Vicente Fox — whose family fortune rests on agricultural exports — and his first foreign minister, Jorge Casteñada (a regular commentator in the US media) — both made the argument that Lopez Obrador’s incoming administration makes, that marijuana is just another export crop. When conservative, former president Vicente Fox (whose family fortune rests on agricultural exports to begin with) openly proposed legal sales, he was pilloried in the press, and the social media had a field day producing memes showing Fox as a hippie stoner. At a lecture I attended about eight years ago, Jorge Castañeda, Fox’s foreign secretary and a regular figure on US news shows, asked the audience about legalizing marijuana, only to be shouted down. And that was in Sinaloa, ground zero of the marijuana region.

Joining the social conservatives were human rights activists. The legal case for personal use came from prominent human rights workers, all of who were quick to admit they had no intention of actually using marijuana (after all, they were respectable lawyers and academics) but wanted to test the Mexican constitutional guarantee of the right to “personal development”. The court had already ruled on the medical use issue, although marijuana based medication had to be imported, and was subject to very strict licensing by COPRIFIS, Mexico’s equivalent of the FDA.

The court rulings were largely the handiwork of justice Olga Sánchez Cordero. Term limited (Mexican judges do not have lifetime appointments) at 70, Cordero’s career is far from finished. A distinguished jurist and feminist, she was something of a surprise when Lopez Obrador announced she would be his choice for Interior Minister… an office with no equivalent in the United States, but the second most powerful office in the federal government, the second in line to the president, as well as Chief of Staff, liaison to congress, and overseeing the department that coordinates domestic policy.

While waiting to be appointed, she also successfully ran for the Senate. Whether she can hold both offices at the same time might still be an issue, but for now, with Congress having taken office in September, while the new President doesn’t assume his position until the end of this month, there was an ample opportunity for the “sausage making” of legislation, crafting a bill that will allay the fears of the socially conservative middle class that legalization will lead to rampant use, while providing an alternative to a militarized and destructive “drug war” and bring the “exporters” into the legitimate marketplace.

The July election swept away the traditional parties, leaving the reformist Morena party in an almost absolute majority in Congress. Some compromises with a few small parties and individuals within the three traditional parties, will guarantee passage of some form of legalization: Morena’s proposal would allow (under license) growing up to five plants and producing up to 480 grams per year. Sales and distribution would be regulated by COPRAFIS, and would probably be though licensed pharmacists.

So… Big Benders. How this will affect your “importers”, I can’t say. In theory, the existing exporters will have to change their market strategy (Canada, which legalized marijuana earlier this year, is bandied about as a new major market, as well as several European pharmaceutical manufacturers) and their own supply chain. And, in theory, we’ll be seeing a lot less “collateral damage” from the drug war. What we don’t foresee are more stoned gringos sitting on the beach. Maybe.

• •

A former reporter for The Presidio International and the Alpine Avalanche, Richard Grabman is the author of “God’s Gachupines and Gringos: A People’s History of Mexico.” A free-lance editor and writer, he lives in the Roma Sur neighborhood of Mexico City, blogging on Mexican history, politics and culture at . He can be contacted at [email protected].