Drug Law Reform Comes to Mexico
By Aram Barra & Zara Snapp
Last month, Mexico’s Supreme Court handed down two decisions that effectively overturned Mexico’s longstanding ban on the personal use of marijuana. The court affirmed the power of the individual—rather than the state—to decide what to do with their own body. More importantly, it struck down a form of prohibition and brought the war on drugs in Mexico closer its end than ever before.
Both of us are plaintiffs in the two cases and, for the past decade, we have worked as drug policy reform advocates who have sought to decriminalize the use of cannabis in Mexico. The Supreme Court had already chipped away at the prohibition of cannabis on three previous occasions between 2015 and 2017. Coupled with its most recent decisions, Mexico’s Supreme Court has created a new precedent, one which lower courts must apply to their rulings.
As a result of these rulings, new criteria must be used by every judge across Mexico for cases concerning drug possession or use. This is no small thing; as recently as 2014, the Attorney General’s Office initiated almost 5,000 preliminary inquiries into “consumption”—and another 4,000 for “possession”—of marijuana, even though these activities are not punishable by law. This change may help reduce mass incarceration in Mexico.
Meanwhile, a newly-elected Congress must face a basic question: What is the appropriate policy model to legally regulate drugs in Mexico?
Encouragingly, the incoming government has already committed to establishing a regulated cannabis market. While its proposal will likely be modified, most of the major political parties have already pronounced themselves in favor of some form of decriminalization. (Some are even interested in models for regulation.) The incoming administration is also considering how to pardon or grant clemency to 10,000 nonviolent offenders serving time for simple possession of marijuana.
For years, Mexico’s tough-on-crime policies have served as a model and fueled violence across Latin America. Now, Mexico has the chance to bring the people and communities who are marginalized by militarization back into the center of the discussion—and to ensure that drug policies are primarily responsive to these people’s needs. The end of the war on drugs must build on their experiences.
Ultimately, punitive anti-drug policies have not reduced the levels of violence in Mexico. In fact, they’ve tended to make it worse. At a moment when some Latin American countries seem to be turning against human rights, Mexico has the chance yet again to lead the way—but, this time, toward justice.
Advocates, experts, and affected communities will be key in articulating proposals to build security with peace, equality, and dignity for all. Legal regulation is the first step towards smarter drug laws, ones which will privilege public health, and human rights. As Mexico begins the painful road towards reconciliation and peacebuilding, a great deal of work remains undone. But for the first time in decades, the future looks more hopeful.