Mexico Looks To Be Next To Legalize Marijuana

Nov 14, 2018
Originally published on November 14, 2018 5:31 pm

Updated at 5:26 p.m. ET.

Mexico may soon join a growing number of countries, along with many U.S. states, and legalize marijuana. The Mexican president-elect's leftist party, which now has a majority in Congress, has introduced legislation that would allow citizens to grow and sell pot.

But Mexicans are divided over whether legalizing marijuana will help curb organized crime's hold on the country or create more drug users.

Newly elected Sen. Olga Sánchez Cordero, of the left-wing National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) party, told lawmakers that since 2006, Mexico's war on drugs has killed about 235,000 people and left 40,000 more disappeared.

"We don't want any more deaths ... no more mourning families, no more bloodshed," she said.

Sánchez Cordero has been tapped to be interior minister once President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador takes office Dec. 1.

She told her fellow lawmakers, as she introduced the marijuana legalization bill last week in the Senate, that militarization and penalization of the problem is not working.

Lawmakers responded with loud applause, which isn't much of a surprise given that her MORENA party holds majorities in both houses of Congress, all but ensuring passage of the landmark legislation.

As it's written now, the bill would allow companies to grow and sell marijuana for commercial, medicinal and recreational use. Individuals could also register for government permits through clubs to grow up to 20 marijuana plants a year for private use. Smoking it in public would also be allowed, as long it's not in a tobacco-free zone.

The move follows a Mexican Supreme Court ruling last month that an absolute ban on recreational marijuana use is unconstitutional.

Mexico's illegal pot production has been on the decline since an increasing number of U.S. states have voted to legalize it. But production could make a comeback under legalization. Canada, which recently legalized marijuana, could be a good market for Mexico, as well as Mexican consumers themselves. A 2016 national survey on drug use shows that more than 7 million Mexicans smoked pot at least once in their lifetime.

And Mexico has plenty of prime farmland to grow pot. According to a recent survey by researchers at the Autonomous Metropolitan University in Mexico City, hundreds of thousands of acres of land is still dedicated to marijuana farming.

However, it's unclear whether the incoming president wants Mexico to legalize it. When asked in a news conference last Friday after the bill was introduced, López Obrador would only say he respects lawmakers right to give it a try.

"This is all part of democracy," López Obrador said. "I respect Congress' initiatives," he said, while avoiding sharing his opinion.

López Obrador is more moderate than many in his leftist party. But he did promise to combat Mexico's organized crime violence differently than past administrations, which relied on military solutions.

Mexico's Senate Majority Coordinator Ricardo Monreal, of MORENA, says legalizing pot will reduce crime and prison populations. And he says it will bring needed revenue to the government, which would regulate all marijuana production and sales.

"It's better to have it regulated than be underground," says Monreal. Besides, he adds, these days marijuana is out in the open.

That's obvious a recent day at a small park in downtown Mexico City. A few young guys play basketball. Others relax on benches and pass around joints and pipes.

A 22-year-old man, who would only his nickname "El Chinito" (Curly) since he sells marijuana illegally in the park, wasn't too worried about working in the open.

He says he gets about $4 a joint.

"I don't feel like marijuana is a bad vice, not like others, like alcohol which makes you aggressive," he says. He's hoping pot is legal soon, so then he won't have to pay the cops to let him sell in the park, he adds.

One of the basketball players, 25-year-old Benjamín López, says he's not in favor of the new legalization initiative. He says he smoked pot as a teen and doesn't want kids doing it. "I just worry about the young people, growing up with drugs, it's not good for them," he says.

Other opponents to legalization, such as Leonardo García of the National Union of Parents, agree and say it would lead to addiction.

García says it's a lie that making pot legal will lower crime rates. What is needed in Mexico, he says, is the rule of law, not letting criminals go free.

"In the end what's going to happen is there won't be less crime and organized gangs will still operate as always," he says.

Sen. Sánchez Cordero, who as interior minister would oversee national security issues, disagrees. She says it's time to try something different to save Mexico from so much violence and poverty.

"We just want to live in a peaceful Mexico," she says.

MORENA party officials say they hope to have a bill on the new president's desk before the end of the year.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Mexico, like many U.S. states, may soon legalize marijuana. The president-elect's leftist party, now a majority in Mexico's Congress, has introduced legislation allowing citizens to grow and sell marijuana. And so it becomes a test, a country facing a serious problem with organized drug gangs tries to curb their activities by making one of their businesses legal. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Senator Olga Sanchez Cordero of the leftist Morena party told lawmakers that Mexico's decade-long war on drugs has killed 235,000 people and left 40,000 more disappeared.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OLGA SANCHEZ CORDERO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "We don't want any more victims, no more mourning families, no more bloodshed," she said. Sanchez Cordero will be Mexico's interior minister once President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador takes office December 1. She says militarization and criminalization of the problem is not working.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANCHEZ CORDERO: Muchas gracias.

(APPLAUSE)

KAHN: The loud applause she received isn't a surprise given that her Morena party holds majorities in both houses of Congress. If passed, the new law will allow companies to grow and sell marijuana and let individuals cultivate plants for private use, up to 20 year. It's unclear, though, whether the incoming president is onboard. When asked at a recent press conference, Lopez Obrador would only say he respects lawmakers' right to give it a try.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRES-ELECT ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "This is all part of democracy," says Lopez Obrador. "I respect Congress' initiatives," he said, while avoiding sharing his opinion. Mexico's Senate majority coordinator Ricardo Monreal says legalizing pot will reduce prison populations and stem crime. And he says it will bring needed revenue to the government, which will regulate all marijuana production and sales.

RICARDO MONREAL: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "It's better to have it regulated than be underground," says Monreal. "Besides, he adds, these days marijuana is out in the open."

(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL BOUNCING)

KAHN: A few young guys play basketball in the small park in downtown Mexico City. Others relax on benches and pass around joints and pipes.

EL CHINITO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: (Speaking Spanish).

EL CHINITO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: This 22-year-old man would only tell me his nickname, El Chinito, or Curly, since he's selling marijuana illegally in the park. He gets about $4 a joint.

EL CHINITO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I don't feel like marijuana is a bad vice - not like others, like alcohol, which makes you aggressive," he says. He says he'll be glad when it's legal. Then he won't have to pay the cops to let him sell in the park. One of the basketball players, 25-year-old Benjamin Lopez, says he doesn't want pot to be legal.

BENJAMIN LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I just worry about the young people growing up with drugs. It's not good for them," he says. Opponents to legalization, like Leonardo Garcia of the National Union of Parents, agrees and says legalization leads to addiction. He says it's a lie that making pot legal will lower crime rates.

LEONARDO GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "In the end, crime will continue as always," he says. Senator Olga Sanchez Cordero disagrees. She says it's time to try something different to save Mexico from so much violence and poverty.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANCHEZ CORDERO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "We just want to live in a peaceful Mexico," she says. Morena party officials say they hope to have a bill on the new president's desk before the end of the year. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.