Though deprived of sunlight and breathing the smog-ridden air of Mexico’s mountain capital, the marijuana plants, from a strain known as purple kush, reach 0.9 m in a brick home at a middle-class suburb. They are alimented with electric lights and kept behind closed curtains by the owner, who says he grows them to smoke himself. If police found them, he could be nailed for drug production and face a hefty prison sentence under laws designed to tackle the country’s ultraviolent cartels.
But that situation could change with a series of bills that Mexico City legislators plan to file at the end of this month to legalize and regulate marijuana consumption. Proposals include the setting up of cannabis clubs to grow herb for their members and tolerance of anyone carrying up to 30 g, or just over an ounce, of marijuana. Leftist lawmakers say the measures would free up police to focus on serious crime and take a step toward ending the country’s catastrophic drug war, which has claimed more than 60,000 lives in the past six years. “The war against drugs is a failure. We are not going to win it,” says assemblyman Vidal Llerenas, who is working on the legislation. “We cannot hope for a drug-free world. But we can hope to limit the damage and take the profits away from organized crime.”
The Mexico City bills are part of a wave of marijuana proposals across the Americas in the wake of the U.S. states of Colorado and Washington voting to legalize cannabis last November. The Uruguayan lower house has passed a legalization law, which the Senate is expected to vote on this month, and advocates are looking at measures from Brazil to Argentina to Canada. While the U.S. was long a world leader in drug prohibition, U.S. legalization has now become an influential force outside its borders. Alison Holcomb, the chief architect of the Washington State law, has spoken across the continent this year, including at a recent forum in Mexico. “I have seen a sea change in thinking. People are no longer asking if it can be done, but how it can be done,” says Holcomb, who is the drug-policy director for the ACLU in Washington State. If the Mexican capital, which is the largest city on the continent, were to legalize marijuana, it would add even more momentum to the prolegalization wave, possibly paving the way for similar measures in other Mexican states and in neighboring Central American nations like Guatemala.
Like in Washington State, Mexico City aims to take advantage of a federal system to forge a drug policy independent of the rest of the country. The Mexican capital’s assembly, dominated by the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, has the same power as state legislature. In recent years, it has carried out a wave of socially liberal reforms, including the legalization of abortion and same-sex marriage. To supporters, this makes the capital a progressive beacon of hope in a conservative, Catholic country; to critics, it is a den of sin. Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera, who took power last year, has spoken positively about marijuana reform, and some speculate he could use the issue to make his mark during his six-year term.
A 2009 Mexico federal law decriminalized the possession of small amounts of drugs, including up to 5 g, or about a sixth of an ounce, of marijuana. However, police are still arresting many people with a little over this amount, filling police stations and prisons with relatively harmless criminals, Llerenas said. The assemblyman is looking at legislation for anything up to 30 g of cannabis to be taken out of the hands of prosecutors and handled by “dissuasion committees,” which would advise people to go to treatment if caught repeatedly.
Meanwhile, the idea of cannabis clubs aims to circumvent federal laws against selling marijuana as members would be simply paying to grow for their own use. Lawmakers are considering the idea of associations with up to 100 members, who would pay a subscription and receive about 50 g of marijuana per month. The Mexican drug-policy-reform group Cupihd, which has done extensive research into the issue, believes such clubs could take up 70% of the Mexico City marijuana market, which it estimates is now worth about $30 million a year. “With clubs, marijuana can be regulated without profits, and give the users control,” says Cupihd director Jorge Hernández. “They can open a space to show that regulation is better than denial and failed prohibition.” Mexico City could be used as a laboratory for policymakers across the country — and, indeed, the continent — to observe and learn from, Hernández says.
However, such clubs could still be open to challenges from Mexico’s federal government over violation of drug-production laws. President Enrique Peña Nieto has said he is personally opposed to marijuana legalization but in favor of a new debate on the issue. The U.S. federal government’s call to not intervene in Colorado and Washington State could have an influence on decisions south of the border. “We look foolish trying to be champions of prohibition, when the United States is legalizing,” the lawmaker Llerenas says.
While former President Felipe Calderón waged a military-led offensive against drug cartels, Peña Nieto has focused on crime prevention and reducing homicides. Mexican cartels make billions of dollars trafficking cocaine, heroin and crystal meth as well as marijuana to the U.S., so legal cannabis in Mexico City would have only a minor impact on their business. However, advocates see the move as an important step in gradually shifting drug policies in Mexico and the U.S.
It is yet to be seen how much resistance the Mexico City marijuana proposals will meet. Opponents include conservative parent groups and the Catholic Church. “It is irresponsible to say that marijuana is not harmful,” says Father Hugo Valdemar, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Mexico City. “We need to hear the voices of the families of addicts in this debate.” However, the same groups are also robustly opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage, but failed to stop them being legalized in the capital.
On the other side, Mexican politicians and personalities from across the spectrum have recently spoken in favor of marijuana legalization. A newspaper advertisement supporting reform was signed by 67 prominent figures, including actors Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna, two former Health Secretaries, Nobel laureate Mario Molina and Calderón’s former Interior Secretary Fernando Gómez Mont. Former President Vicente Fox has become a particularly robust advocate, saying he would even like to work with a U.S. Internet impresario in a marijuana company. “This is not an issue of left against right,” Hernández of Cupihd says. “Many in the political class are coming to realize that something has to be done.”