The Mexican Supreme Court opened the door to legalizing marijuana on Wednesday, delivering a pointed challenge to the nation’s strict substance abuse laws and adding its weight to the growing debate in Latin America over the costs and consequences of the war against drugs.
The vote by the court’s criminal chamber declared that individuals should have the right to grow and distribute marijuana for their personal use. The ruling is a first step — applying only to a single cannabis club that brought the suit — and does not strike down Mexico’s current drug laws. But it lays the groundwork for a wave of legal actions that could ultimately legalize marijuana.
The decision reflects a changing dynamic in Mexico, where for decades the American-backed war on drugs has produced much upheaval but few lasting victories. Today, the flow of drugs to the United States continues, along with the political corruption it fuels in Mexico. The country, dispirited by the ceaseless fight with traffickers, remains engulfed in violence.
“It’s the drama behind all of our efforts,” said Juan Francisco Torres Landa, a corporate lawyer who was one of the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case.
The marijuana case has ignited a debate about the effectiveness of imprisoning drug users, in a country with some of the most conservative drug laws in Latin America. But across the region, a growing number of voices are questioning Washington’s strategy in the drug war. With little to show for tough-on-crime policies, the balance appears to be slowly shifting toward other approaches.
Uruguay enacted a law in 2013 to legalize marijuana, though the creation of a legal marijuana industry in the small country has unfolded slowly. Chile gathered its first harvest of medical marijuana this year. In Brazil, the Supreme Court recently debated the decriminalization of marijuana, cocaine and other drugs. Bolivia allows traditional uses of coca, the plant used to make cocaine, while in the northern part of the hemisphere, Canada’s new prime minister has pledged in the past to legalize marijuana.
Many leaders in Latin America have called for a shift in the war on drugs, including President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia. In May, his government ordering a halt to the aerial spraying of illegal coca fields, rejecting a major tool in the American-backed antidrug campaign because of concerns that the herbicide spray causes cancer.
Though Mr. Santos is one of Washington’s closest allies in the region, he has pointed out the incongruity of jailing poor farmers for growing marijuana while it is slowly being decriminalized in the United States.
Mexicans seeking a new strategy have also been struck by the situation.
“We are killing ourselves to stop the production of something that is heading to the U.S., where it’s legal,” said Armando Santacruz, another plaintiff in the case.
Still, few think that legalizing marijuana will significantly reduce drug violence or weaken the gangs. Although the rising production of higher-quality marijuana in the United States reduces demand for Mexican imports, experts say that Mexican gangs continue to account for an important percentage of the American supply.
“It’s clearly a significant part of the business,” said Peter Reuter, an expert on the global drug war at the University of Maryland and a senior economist at the RAND Corporation. “It’s enough to fight about.”
Marijuana is just one of many sources of income for the gangs, which smuggle drugs across the border to the United States and run kidnapping and extortion rings at home. The criminal infrastructure will persist whether or not marijuana use is legal.
But for critics of the current laws, that is hardly a reason to continue to criminalize marijuana use.
“The existing laws don’t reduce violence, either,” said Catalina Pérez Correa González, a law professor at CIDE, a university in Mexico City.
The legal ruling on Wednesday barely referred to the bloody backdrop of the drug war. Instead, Justice Arturo Zaldivar wrote an 88-page opinion based on principles of human rights, arguing that the state recognizes an individual’s autonomy to engage in recreational activities that do not harm others.
The number of marijuana users in Mexico is believed to be small. One 2011 drug use survey estimated that just 2 percent of Mexicans had smoked marijuana in the past year. Although that figure is probably low, it is a smaller percentage than the 7.5 percent of people in the United States who said in a 2013 survey that they had used marijuana in the previous month.
If Mexicans are allowed to grow and consume their own marijuana, casual users will not have to commit a crime to obtain the drug. Marijuana users are currently vulnerable to extortion by the police and are locked up by the thousands every year on charges of consumption and possession.
“There is an enormous institutional and social cost to enforcing the laws against marijuana,” said Ms. Pérez Correa, whose surveys of state and federal prisons suggest that 60 percent of the inmates sentenced for drug crimes were convicted in cases involving marijuana. “How many resources are being used up to reduce these low-impact crimes?”
Mr. Torres Landa, one of the plaintiffs, put it more bluntly: “We want to force Congress to pursue kidnapping, murderers, rapists and other criminals.”
The ruling on Wednesday was the culmination of an effort to change the law by four members of a prominent Mexican anti-crime group, Mexico United Against Crime.
Mr. Torres Landa and Mr. Santacruz formed a cannabis club with two other people, called the Mexican Society for Responsible and Tolerant Consumption — the Spanish acronym is Smart.
The group applied for a license from Mexico’s drug regulatory agency, but, as expected, was turned down. Their appeal of that decision eventually reached the Supreme Court.
“We have been trying to struggle against illegality, and the results were almost negligible,” said Mr. Torres Landa, who says he has never tried marijuana and does not intend to. “Five or six years ago, we asked why? The answer, as the Americans say, was in the money.”
But the ruling on Wednesday applies only to their petition. For legal marijuana to become the law of the land, the justices in the court’s criminal chamber will have to rule the same way five times, or eight of the 11 members of the full court will have to vote in favor.
If the court decisions continue in that direction, they will be flying in the face of public opinion. Mexicans are so opposed to legalizing marijuana that a leading pollster told the Smart group not to bother with a survey, Mr. Santacruz recalled, or to limit it to young people.
The Mexican government, legislators and security and health officials all came out against legalization, as did the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, the authorities have not permitted even the use of medical marijuana.
But Mr. Santacruz is determined to change people’s minds.
Invoking the specter of Mexico’s most notorious drug kingpin, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo, Mr. Santacruz likes to remind people: “Bad regulation is better than whatever regulation El Chapo and the narcos can provide.”
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Full Article: Mexico’s Supreme Court Opens Door to Legalizing Marijuana Use
Author: Elizabeth Malkin and Azam Ahmed
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