The Mexican Supreme Court first ruled that marijuana prohibition was unconstitutional in 2015. That decision became binding nationwide three years later, when the court gave the Mexican Congress 90 days to pass a legalization bill. Legislators missed that deadline and several others, and last week the court lost patience, ordering the federal government to issue permits that will allow cannabis consumers to possess and grow marijuana at home.
Similar permits have been available since 2015, but until now they were limited to marijuana users who had filed lawsuits and obtained injunctions. Commercial cultivation and distribution remain illegal.
"There will be no permits for planting outdoors," Mexican drug policy activist Lisa Sánchez told Vice. "There will be no participation of companies. Marijuana is not going to be sold in retail…You can't consume marijuana in public space. And health crimes, drug crimes, these remain intact. Thus, marijuana trafficking will continue to be a crime in Mexico, weed dealing will continue to be a crime in Mexico, [and] the eradication of illicit crops will continue to be an activity of the Mexican government."
Mexico legalized limited medical use of marijuana in 2017. Last year President Andrés Manuel López Obrador confidently predicted that the legislature would approve a framework for licensing and regulating recreational marijuana suppliers in early 2021. But legislators still had not agreed on the details when the most recent court-imposed deadline came and went on April 30, and this time they did not request an extension.
Under a bill that the Mexican Senate approved last November, adults 18 or older would be allowed to buy marijuana from state-licensed retailers, possess up to 28 grams (about an ounce), and grow up to six plants for personal use. The Chamber of Deputies failed to act on the bill by the December 15 deadline, which the Supreme Court then extended yet again. In March, the lower chamber approved a different bill that has since been stalled in the Senate.
López Obrador said he would respect the Supreme Court's ruling, but he suggested that corrective legislation or a public referendum might be appropriate, depending on how the cannabis permits work out. "Of course we're going to respect what the court has decided, and we're going to evaluate," he said at a news conference last week. "We're going to see what effects it has. If we see…that it's not working to address the serious problem of drug addiction, that it's not working to stop violence, then we would act." That is a strange way of framing the issue, since the court-ordered possession and home cultivation permits do not address the black market, except to the extent that homegrown marijuana reduces demand for illegally produced pot.
If legislators ever get their act together, Mexico will be by far the most populous country to legalize recreational marijuana at the national level, joining Canada and Uruguay on the short list of governments that have taken that step. Mexican legalization would create a contiguous weed-friendly zone stretching 4,800 miles from Mexico's border with Guatemala to Cape Columbia on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut. That zone includes every U.S. state on the Pacific Coast.
Mexico might be the third country to legalize marijuana—or possibly the fourth, if Israeli legislators follow through on a legalization plan that was endorsed last fall by both of the major parties that controlled the government at the time. The new governing coalition, a hodgepodge of right-wing and left-wing parties, is also officially in favor of legalization.
In the U.S., 18 states, representing 44 percent of the national population, now allow recreational use of marijuana, but the federal ban remains in place. Since President Joe Biden wants to keep it that way and congressional Democrats who favor legalization are not making a serious effort to attract Republican support, the conflict between federal and state marijuana laws is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.