Lawmakers in Mexico have cast their first vote in an effort to meet a Supreme Court mandate to legalize cannabis by the end of April this year. On Wednesday the three committees of Justice, Health, Public Safety and Legislative Studies voted in favor of a draft bill that would legalize cannabis for medical, adult, and industrial purposes.
Members of the commissions will have to meet to discuss the specifics, propose changes and achieve a consensus version of the draft bill, after which it will head to the Senate and then the Chamber of Deputies, which is the lower house of Congress. The timeline going forward is yet to be defined.
Votes cast on Wednesday represented a range of political parties, and lawmakers were in overwhelming agreement that Mexico needs comprehensive cannabis regulation now.
Jesusa Rodríguez, Senator from the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) party, began the discussion by asking other lawmakers not to turn their backs on the reality of the country.
“We are here to legislate without prejudice; we are here to legislate about a reality that is happening in Mexico,” Rodriguez said. “Here, you can even use Uber to get marijuana.”
In their 3-minute speeches, most senators said they were in favor of the draft legislation. Others raised their voices in protest against the project from the outset. “Some say violence rates are going to go down. For God’s sake! As if organized crime was only selling marijuana. This is not going to bring anything positive to Mexico,” said Damian Zepeda, a Senator affiliated with the National Action Party (PAN).
Although the draft bill will be subject to weeks of debate, some senators pointed out aspects of the document that seemed to be the most contentious issues of the session. Stiff penalties and barriers to access the industry for small-scale farmers are among those issues.
In the draft bill, legal personal possession would be capped at 28 grams. However, if a person is caught with more than 28, but less than 200 grams, a fine will be imposed. Fines for violations under the draft can amount to $150,000 USD.
Senator Patricia Mercado from Movimiento Ciudadano Party, said, in reference to these penalties, “It seems to us that there is too much law involved, too many fines.”
Mercado also pointed out “barriers to entry” and said that although she thinks the law is on the right track, it does little for lower socioeconomic and small scale farmers, especially for those who are looking to transition to legal crops.
This push to legalize cannabis in Mexico dates back to October 2018 when the Mexican Supreme Court of Justice ruled that it was unconstitutional to ban the possession or personal use of cannabis, and gave Mexican lawmakers a year to draft a bill that would provide the framework for legal adult-use. Legislators came close to voting on a committee-approved bill last year before the October 2019 deadline, but ultimately asked the Supreme Court for more time. The high court gave Congress six months, until the end of April.
The draft proposal arrived last week, a few days after Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said in his morning news conference on February 26 that his government is not considering marijuana legalization beyond medicinal use, although some members of his party, the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), are pushing for the law.
Ricardo Monreal, Senate majority leader and co-author of the initiative, said on February 24 he thought it was worth taking advantage of the political moment to be able to legislate broadly on the issue, beyond what the Supreme Court has called for.
“I would like a broad, unbounded legislation because if we wanted to be strict, it would be enough for us to reform the three articles that the Court has declared unconstitutional,” Monreal said. “But I want to go further.”
After the document was unveiled by the Mexican Senate committees at the end of February, disappointed reformers noted that few changes have been made in the newly proposed draft bill compared with the version that was under discussion last October, before lawmakers’ request for an extension was granted. Advocates were hoping for the draft bill to emphasize social equity provisions, to protect cannabis consumers from harsh penalties, and to ensure market entry for small-scale farmers, in particular those who currently cultivate illegal crops.
The current draft bill imposes strict possession-related penalties on personal cannabis use if limits are violated. Zara Snapp, a drug policy expert and reform activist based in Mexico City, told Cannabis Wire, “the law does a great job criminalizing consumers,” adding, “No one can ever comply with the penalties imposed by this new law.”
Victor Gutierrez, drug policy coordinator for Mexico United Against Crime, one of the main supporters of cannabis policy reform in the country, told Cannabis Wire that the draft is tailor-made for big players who do not want to miss out on the opportunity of being part of this potentially lucrative industry in Mexico. But it will do little to help small producers.
“We are concerned that it will be difficult for small-scale producers to meet the requirements demanded by the draft bill,” Gutierrez said. For example the draft bill requires packaging to be compostable and labels to be detailed with regard to contents and consumption forms. “Requirements small farmers will not be able to achieve,” he says.
Snapp says she thinks legislators “are including provisions that favor foreign companies.”
Advocates and organizations also argue the bill does not take into account communities affected by the drug war.
“The country has to invest in legalizing cannabis farmers and crops, not destroying, penalizing or forgetting them. We have to remember what our reality is and invest in individuals who already have crops, and make them legal,” Snapp said. She suggests that the percentage of cultivation licenses issued to communities impacted by the drug war should be more than the 40 percent set out in the draft legislation.
Other suggested reforms include increasing from four the number of plants allowed to be cultivated for personal use, and giving farmers access to seeds in Mexico, rather than importing them.