Mexico is confronting yet another setback in a legalization push that could make it one of the world’s largest markets for legal cannabis.
Back in 2018, the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional to prohibit the personal possession and cultivation of cannabis, and ordered lawmakers to approve a legalization bill before October 2019. Lawmakers were slow to address the reform and then the coronavirus delayed the discussion.
And on April 30, the Senate missed a third extended deadline set by the Supreme Court to pass a bill legalizing cannabis in the country.
Now what? Some lawmakers have said they will call for special legislative sessions in June to discuss the bill, in hopes of remedying the situation and moving forward with legalization. The missed deadline also opens the way for the court to step forward and decide the future of cannabis in the country. But the timeline for that possibility is uncertain.
A bill that regulates adult use cannabis was first approved in the Senate in November and then amended in the Chamber of Deputies in March. As ordered by the Supreme Court, the law had to be enacted by April 30. Yet the Senate decided not to endorse the changes made by the lower house of Congress—and eventually ran out of time.
Some senators expressed opposition to the proposed amendments, including one that would give an existing agency, the National Commission Against Addictions, authority to oversee the licensing and implementation of the cannabis program instead of establishing a new independent regulatory body, as had been approved in the Senate version.
“The law as sent to us by the Chamber of Deputies, from my point of view, has inconsistencies, and the best thing for everyone is for it to be a good bill, not a bill that we pass in a hurry and then we have difficulties in its application and interpretation,” Senate Majority Leader Ricardo Monreal said at a press conference on April 8.
The proposed bill would have allowed adults eighteen and older to purchase and possess up to twenty-eight grams of cannabis, and to cultivate six plants for personal use. Changes made to the bill in the Chamber of Deputies, however, included a requirement that adults register with the government in order to grow plants for personal use, and increased penalties for unauthorized possession of cannabis above the legal limit.
But others in the Senate seemed to favor passing the bill, even as amended. Senator Eduardo Ramírez Aguilar, of the ruling MORENA party, said at a press conference in March that while the Senate-version bill had been modified significantly by the Chamber of Deputies, “the Senate´s priority is to pass the bill.”
“Due to the urgent need for the regulation and the income it represents for the Mexican State,” he said, “at this time it is important to legislate in the terms presented to us.”
Yet the April deadline arrived and the cannabis bill did not reach the Senate floor for a final vote. Although the bill cleared two Senate committees, there were many objections raised against the bill as amended by the Chamber of Deputies. Finally, the Senate decided to miss the deadline and chose not to formalize a request to the Court asking for a new extension. The Court had already granted lawmakers several extensions since the first deadline of October 2019.
Although activists said the draft bill fell short of their expectations, because they thought it was excessively punitive, they hoped to see it pass in Congress and then later push for additional revisions, through new bills.
Although several senators had openly supported the initiative a few months ago, many have recently been largely silent about it as legislative elections approach, to the dismay of reformers. “It is disappointing to see they have had three years and they could not agree on passing the bill,” Zara Snapp, a reform activist based in Mexico City, told Cannabis Wire. “I don’t know where all those senators who said they were in favor of the bill in November are. I would like to see them a little more active.”
Again, this was the third deadline the Supreme Court had granted to the Congress. The first was April 2020, then December 2020, and then April 2021. Despite various attempts to pass the law in Congress, the two legislative bodies could not reach an agreement to ensure that they met the deadlines.
“We are in uncharted territory. It is the first and only declaration of unconstitutionality that has ever existed in the Mexican system,” Roberto Ibarra, a constitutional lawyer and cannabis expert, told Cannabis Wire, referencing the Court’s ruling on provisions that ban the use of cannabis, which motivated the Court to ask Congress to pass a legalization bill in the first place.
Ibarra says that as a result of Congress’ failure to comply with the Court order, the Court could issue a ruling that would legalize the right to consume cannabis. While the Supreme Court’s ruling could include specifics, such as a possession limit of 28 grams, lawmakers could also add more specifics by crafting a bill to establish a regulatory framework.
“If the Senate does not comply, the Supreme Court could decide itself whether to expel the provisions that prohibit the use of cannabis from the Mexican legal system,” Ibarra said.
Some lawmakers warn that Mexicans may ultimately miss its shot to legalize cannabis. Movimiento Ciudadano Senator Patricia Mercado, an advocate of cannabis reform, said in a statement that the changes made on the bill by the Chamber of Deputies “could have been corrected without interrupting a legislative process in which so much effort was made and consensus was built.”
She continued, “The decision not to move forward with the April 30 deadline means that the Congress has failed to comply with the Supreme Court’s mandate.”