Mexico’s Cannabis Legalization Languishes as Narco-Wars Escalate

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, once a left-wing firebrand, received criticism at home over his July 8 meeting with Trump at the White House, where he was called to inaugurate the renegotiated “NAFTA 2.0,” which recently took effect. 

Top CEOs from both countries were in attendance at the White House dinner, including Apple’s Tim Cook and Mexican magnate Carlos Slim.

López Obrador, popularly known as AMLO, heaped effusive praise on Trump, even saying the U.S. president has “treated us [Mexicans] with kindness and respect.” This seemed a peculiar thing to say of the man who has built a political career out of demonizing Mexicans.

“The forecasts failed,” AMLO told reporters after the meeting. “We didn’t fight. We are friends, and we’re going to keep being friends.”

Unfortunately for AMLO, the days leading up to their meeting saw eruptions of spectacular bloodshed across Mexico—grisly evidence that there is no end in sight for the narco-violence that has engulfed the country for the past 15 years. And the day after the meet, U.S. border agents shot a man to death at the Mexicali-Calexico crossing in California. 

Most disappointing for many Mexican activists who once placed high hopes in AMLO, the cannabis legalization ordered by the country’s supreme court back in October 2018 has been delayed yet again. Many are looking hopefully to the new law as a first step toward ameliorating the violence and bringing at least one element of the underground economy into a legal, regulated market. But delays to its passage are starting to seem interminable. 

Kicking Legalization Down the Road Thanks to COVID 

In its 2018 ruling, the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation (SCJN) gave Mexico’s Congress 90 days to amend the Health Code to allow for legal personal use, possession and cultivation of cannabis.

AMLO gave his full support, but lawmakers deadlocked on what degree to allow a legal market, and whether it should be in the hands of the state or private sector. Since the 90 days ran out, the SCJN has given Congress repeated deadline extensions to pass the law. 

This February, the deadline was extended to April 30, and lawmakers were ambitiously pledging to beat it. The bill, dubbed the Law for the Regulation of Cannabis, called for permitting individual possession of up to 28 grams and cultivation of up to 20 plants per household, depending on how many family members reside under the roof.

It also called for creation of a Mexican Institute of Cannabis under the Governance Secretariat to oversee a legal market. In March, the bill did pass the key Senate committees on Justice and Health, and lawmakers appeared to finally be racing to the finish line.

And then COVID-19 happened.

Just as progress seemed imminent, Congress shut down in response to the pandemic. Days before the new deadline ran out, Congress shook down the high court for yet another extension. And this one is far more flexible. Lawmakers now have until the end of the next scheduled legislative session—a window from mid-September to mid-December. That means it will likely be at least two years after the SCJN imposed its 90-day deadline before the law is passed.

Compounding the frustration, a planned expansion of Mexico’s medical marijuana program is also stalled. Lawmakers revised the Health Code to allow for medical use in June 2017. The law ordered the Health Secretariat to issue regulations establishing norms for cannabis use by qualifying patients. But this deadline came and went without action.

Mexican patients have since been confined to use of CBD-only products imported from the United States, as illicit cannabis has long gone north from Mexico to the U.S. 

With the legalization bill on hold, the Health Secretariat recently announced that it is preparing to release the medical marijuana regulations.

If followed through in a timely manner, this could provide a limited legal market for herbaceous marijuana (high-THC cannabis flower) while full legalization is delayed.

Nightmarish Violence Unabated

If more evidence is needed that Mexico’s endemic narco-violence is still as strong as ever, the proof was in the headlines during the days surrounding the AMLO-Trump meeting.

July 3 saw a bloody shoot-out just across the border from Texas, involving government troops and presumed gunmen from the Cartel of the Northeast, a splinter faction of Los Zetas. Mexican army soldiers said they came under fire from the gunmen in the border town of Nuevo Laredo, across from Laredo, Texas, according to The Border Report. They returned fire, killing 12 gunmen. 

Two days prior, there was another horrific massacre as gunmen killed 24 people after storming a drug rehabilitation facility in the city of Irapuato, in central Guanajuato state. It’s unclear which faction was behind that attack, but rehab centers have unknowingly become a favorite target of the warring narco-gangs.

Homicides in Mexico hit a new record last year and are trending higher still in 2020.

Meet the New Boss? 

More Mexican commentators are growing suspicious of the left-populist AMLO’s closeness with right-populist and Mexico-bashing Trump. Some even went so far as to call the White House meeting an act of “national treason.” 

AMLO ostentatiously declared the drug war to be “over” after taking office in late 2018. In May 2019, he dropped out of the US-led, anti-drug Merida Initiative—but this was only after most of the military aid had already been delivered.

Now his critics say AMLO’s new National Guard force, ostensibly created to combat the narco-violence, is being used as proxy force for Trump, intercepting migrants before they reach the US border. 

It was actually the conservative Mexican commentator Enrique Krauze who on July 5 wrote a harsh op-ed in the New York Times, ahead of the summit, entitled “Mexico’s President is All In for Trump.”

Krauze writes:

“There is only one power that Mr. López Obrador…recognizes and fears, and that is the only power greater than himself—the United States… That’s why when Mr. Trump threatened to abandon the North American Free Trade Agreement or to impose tariffs on Mexican products, he agreed to turn Mexico into Mr. Trump’s wall. The new National Guard, which was supposed to prevent and combat this country’s unspeakable drug violence, has instead been deployed on our southern border turn away Central American migrants and, on the northern border, to keep them penned up in subhuman conditions.”

The National Guard is also involved in cannabis enforcement. On July 9, the force announced the decommissioning of 66 tons of illicit cannabis in a series of operations across the country, with one of the biggest hauls in the state of Sonora.

Cannabis legalization will likely be only a small step back from the brink of social cataclysm in Mexico. But with even that first step stalled, the trajectory is deeper into crisis.

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