Comments on Mexico’s National Debate on Marijuana Legalization, Part 2

By Sam Mendez, Executive Director of the Cannabis Law and Policy Project

A protester carries a sign saying "Make a joint, not war." Photo: AFP

A protester carries a sign saying “Make a joint, not war.” Photo: AFP

The following reflects the views of the author and not necessarily that of the Cannabis Law & Policy Project or the University of Washington.

On Tuesday, March 8th, I was honored to take part in Mexico’s Third Forum of the National Debate on the use of Cannabis in Saltillo, Coahuila. The prior two Forums concerned public health, prevention, ethics, and human rights, while this Forum’s covered topics of economics and regulation. My presentation was largely similar to the one given at Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights (see last week’s blog post), but shorter and without the discussion on cannabis’ dangers and human rights issues. Due to time constraints, I presented mostly on Washington’s marijuana regulatory system and its effect on the economy. Also, I spoke little in terms of advocacy, though some debate arose after presentations.

Panel Summary

Alongside me on the panel was Miles Light of Colorado University, Mark Kleiman of UCLA, BOTEC Analysis, Juan Carlos Hidalgo of the Cato Institute, and two Mexican representatives. I’ll briefly summarize what each named presenter discussed and the following debate.

Mr. Light’s presentation, like mine, focused more on substance and data than argument, and he chiefly stuck to describing use, regulation, and economics in Colorado. Mr. Kleiman, while softly advocating for some form of regulated system (he entirely supports decriminalization of marijuana), also voiced concerns over public health, and advocated for a state monopoly system rather than a private business-based system. And Mr. Hidalgo compared cannabis’ current legal status to that of prohibition and argued legalization was an issue of individual liberty. Mr. Hidalgo went even further and argued that all drugs should be legalized, at least to some extent.

While I argued that legalizing all drugs was too far, and that drugs like heroin and meth do far greater damage to the individual and to communities than marijuana, I did state that I largely agreed with Mr. Hidalgo’s stance on legalization and comparison of marijuana today to 1920s Prohibition. The event was capped with a speech by Mexico’s Secretary of the Interior (Mexico’s most important cabinet position) Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, available translated [Secretary Of the Interior Speech].

Perhaps it was the passion in his presentation, but it seemed the audience (of 100 or so students, media representatives, and politicians) resonated most with Mr. Hidalgo. The panelists got into some debate over his position, with one presenter arguing that given Mexico’s already very low use of marijuana per capita, legalizing marijuana was a solution without a problem.

The Pulse on Mexico on Cannabis

During my time in Saltillo, I did my best to take the political pulse of Mexico on where one could expect this debate to go. Most, if not all, of the Mexican citizens I spoke to were in favor of legalization, but one must note that the audience was likely skewed towards that direction. Secretary Osorio Chong’s speech was careful and measured, pointing out the country’s mood for change but also noting its international treaty obligations. He also stated the need to combat drug cartels and violence, and noted cannabis’ benefits. Interestingly, the Secretary said (translated), “The use of marijuana can be linked with the right, that every Mexican has, for free development of his personality.” I believe this is referring back to Mexico’s Supreme Court decision, which I plan to analyze in further detail in a future post.

One cannot imagine something similarly said by an equally senior government officials in the United States. An observer I spoke to said Secretary Chong was backtracking from the previous debates, when it seemed he and the government were moving towards legalization. But another I spoke with said the opposite, so it seems nobody knows for sure.

What I was assured by numerous people was that something in Mexico would change. If it does not legalize marijuana, it will certainly pass medical marijuana laws. Overall, it was a fascinating experience to have partaken in the debate. I offered Washington State’s perspective, to observed how the international debate differs. We don’t often hear of Mexican politics here in the U.S., but at 120 million people Mexico is the 11th largest country in the world. Legalization would be a tremendous change. It would mark a global shift in perception, and perhaps legal status, of cannabis.

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