In 1961, the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs stated that “the production, manufacture, export, import, distribution of, trade in, use and possession” of marijuana should not overreach “medical and scientific purposes,” as it is, according to the treaty, as dangerous as cocaine and heroin.

Like the United Nations, the United State’s drug schedule, created by the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, groups cannabis with heroin and LSD and categorizes it as even more dangerous than methamphetamine and cocaine.

The United Nations’ status as the international protector of global health and human rights and the United States’ role as the global hegemon make their prohibitive policies extremely influential on international cannabis law.

However, prohibitive cannabis measures are ineffective and promote black markets and organized crime

Infuriatingly, these broken laws are based on xenophobic, anti-scientific information and can have devastating consequences.

Mexico is a Case in Point

In 2012, Fernando Belaunzaran, a Mexican lawmaker, authored a bill for the legalization of the production, sale, and use of cannabis. Belaunzaran argued that prohibition was dangerous for Mexican citizens. At that time, estimates reported that over 60,000 Mexicans had been killed as a result of the “war on drugs.” Belaunzaran’s bill failed, but the discussion it evoked remained.

Vicente_FoxIn 2013, former President Vicente Fox shared his reformist views on cannabis policy, arguing that the militant eradication policies the Mexican government had enforced had failed and contributed to the tens of thousands of gruesome deaths and the rise of extortion, kidnapping, and robberies suffered by the country during Felipe Calderon’s presidency (2006-2012). Despite the obvious failure of Mexican drug policy, the majority of Mexicans, at that time, did not support the legalization of marijuana, reflecting the international community’s attitude toward the plant.

The anti-pot sentiment espoused by the powers that be is in a vulnerable position. The legalization movement in the United States has made quite the spectacle of the federal law, showcasing the dissonance between the American people and the folks refusing to change.

All’s not copacetic at the international level either.  The United Nations’ policies face everything from criticism to outright defiance as states within the U.S. legalize cannabis use for recreational purposes, Uruguay legalizes cannabis at the national level, and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vocalizes his intent to legalize marijuana in the near future.

In light of the Resistance, Where Does Mexico Stand Today? 

In 2014, President Enrique Peña Nieto conceded to the press that Mexico’s war on drugs was failing, and that, given the United States’ changing state policies, it did not make sense for Mexico to continue to enforce such extreme anti-marijuana measures.

In September 2015, eight-year old Graciela Elizalde, a Mexican citizen suffering from Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, became the first citizen to receive a cannabidiol derived product for therapeutic use.  Lennox Gastaut syndrome is debilitating—it can produce up to 400 epileptic seizures a day, preventing patients from living normal lives.

Elizalde’s parents attempted to alleviate their daughter’s symptoms through every legal channel available, including brain surgery, to no avail. Cannabidiol (CBD), a nonpsychoactive cannabinoid, has been studied for its antiepileptic properties.

Despite its strict anti-marijuana laws, the Mexican government made a special exemption for the eight-year old allowing her to use the drug

In October 2015, the Mexican Supreme Court was given the unprecedented task of determining the constitutionality of prohibiting the growth and use of marijuana for personal use. Specifically, the Court would determine whether or not the prohibition of non-commercial marijuana stymies the human right to freely develop one’s personality. This case was extraordinary because personal marijuana use was argued as a human right and because Mexico by that point had suffered the murders of approximately 100,000 people and the disappearances of about 25,000 people in connection to the war on drugs.

The Mexican Supreme Court concluded that laws preventing Mexican citizens from producing and using marijuana for non-commercial, personal reasons violated their human rights.  The rationale behind the conclusion is pretty revolutionary.  The Justices agreed that, in order to protect the right of every individual to be independent and unique, the state must not impose a standard of healthy living upon individuals if their behavior affects no one but themselves. For example, the state could not force someone to only watch two hours of television a day to protect that person’s health without violating his/her human right to freely develop his/her personality.

While a monumental decision for proponents of legalization, the Supreme Court’s ruling did not legalize marijuana. The Mexican Supreme Court would have to make the same ruling in at least four more cases for the marijuana use to become legal for all Mexican citizens.

In April 2016, President Peña Nieto stated his intention to explore alternative methods to control illegal drug flow including the decriminalization of marijuana possession.  Mexico’s health code currently allows citizens to possess up to 5 grams of cannabis. President Peña Nieto stated his intention to ask Mexico’s Congress to increase the legal possession amount of marijuana to 28 grams, or one ounce.

Five_GramsThe president stated, “We Mexicans know all too well the range and the defects of prohibitionist and punitive policies, and of the so-called war on drugs that has prevailed for 40 years.  Our country has suffered, as few have, the ill effects of organized crime tied to drug trafficking.”

He continued, “Fortunately, a new consensus is gradually emerging worldwide in favor of reforming drug policies.  A growing number of countries are strenuously combating criminals, but instead of criminalizing consumers, they offer them alternatives and opportunities.”

The president’s statement not only seemed like a logical next step after the Supreme Court’s ruling, but also a reflection of reality on the local level.  According to Mexican defense attorney María Teresa Paredes,

Most police officers don’t bother detaining someone high on marijuana because they consider it’s not worth arresting a potentially violent person who the judge is going to let go on a misdemeanor charge anyway 

Three months ago, Mexican senators overwhelmingly (98-7) passed the bill proposed by President Peña Nieto proposing the legalization of marijuana for medical and scientific use.  Once passed by the lower house, the bill will officially become law.

The evolution of Mexico’s drug policy offers both despair and hope to the rest of the world.  The horrific violence the country has experienced as a result of its failed drug war has devastated the nation’s people.  But its shifting approach toward marijuana policy demonstrates the possibility of change even in the most unlikely situations.

Dianna Benjamin

About the author: Dianna Benjamin is a freelance writer, teacher, wife, and mom horrified and fascinated by social justice and our inability--yet constant pursuit--to get it right.