As U.S. States Decriminalize Marijuana, Mexico’s Drug War Rages On
By Froylán Enciso & Brenda Pérez
In August of 2016, Aarón Valencia and his family fled to the United States amid the violence of Mexico’s drug war. Gangs had threatened to force two of his children into organized crime in his home state of Michoacán, and seeking refuge in the United States seemed his only option.
Today, Aarón, a former member of a vigilante militia disarmed by the Mexican government, and his family are being held at the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, waiting for their asylum claim to be processed. They are among the millions of victims of the drug war that rages in Mexico to this day.
Over the past decade, several U.S. states have moved to legalize or decriminalize marijuana, a shift that has improved the lives of countless Americans. But while legalization is an important component of righting the wrongs of the drug war, it is not the only component—especially for the hundreds of thousands of Mexican families who have already been victimized by a century of prohibitionist policies.
Mexico and the United States have long had an asymmetric relationship when it comes to the control of cannabis and other drugs. Two decades ago, California made history by regulating the medicinal use of the plant. That same year, Mexico doubled down on the punitive model by criminalizing narcomenudeo, the small trade of marijuana.
While in the United States, decriminalization has boosted local economies and decreased mass incarceration, in Mexico the presence of the army in the streets has only demonstrated the country’s fragile institutional framework. Homicides, disappearances, forced displacement, human rights violations of people who use drugs, and the diversification of criminal activities have all increased, especially since 2006.
When California legalized recreational marijuana on November 8, 2016, drug policy reformers in Mexico received the news with cautious optimism. Legalization in California would boost Mexican initiatives to reform prohibitionist and punitive drug policies that have cost the country a third of its GDP growth [PDF in Spanish] and stalled the life expectancy of Mexican men, who live up to five fewer years than average in drug war–addled states like Chihuahua.
Last December, the Mexican Senate legalized the medical use of marijuana; it now awaits approval in the Chamber of Deputies. In the beginning, however, only imported medical marijuana will be allowed. Recreational consumption will continue to be prosecuted, self-cultivation will remain illegal, and authorizations for local production will only be possible, perhaps in the future, if the Ministry of Health determines their feasibility.
This incongruity between California’s progressive approach to marijuana laws and Mexico’s continued prohibition is creating acute problems for Mexico that will only grow worse.
For one, Mexico’s negative trade balance will continue to widen. As criminal organizations decrease their exports from Mexico in response to falling demand for black market marijuana in the United States, Mexico’s domestic supply of marijuana will rise, driving down prices and boosting domestic consumption, with costs for both the health and penal systems.
Further, as the Mexican cartels diversify their criminal activities away from marijuana, the costs of maintaining a war against them will also rise. Ironically, even as these costs go up, the government will justify intensifying this war as the cartels ramp up their trade of other substances, such as heroin and methamphetamine, and pursue activities like extortion, protection rackets, kidnapping, and human trafficking.
Meanwhile, the peasant communities and migrants that cultivate cannabis will lose their source of income, leaving them more susceptible to recruitment for other criminal activities. And Mexican migrants working on legal, semilegal, and illegal marijuana farms in California will continue to be exploited.
These specialized migrants, coveted for their unique skills, are often unfairly compensated because of their immigration status. One engineer at Chapingo Autonomous University who specializes in agroecological techniques worked for six months at California marijuana farms. He said in a recent interview that he earned less than $15,000 for $100,000 worth of work.
It’s becoming clear that, while legalization has bestowed an array benefits on the United States, it will not repair the damages the war on drugs has caused to Mexico. Legalization in the United States will not give comfort to the grieving Mexican families of the thousands disappeared and forcibly recruited by criminal organizations. It will not provide security to Mexican regions that were once marijuana providers for California. It will not return security to the communities displaced by the violence of Mexico’s drug war. And it absolutely will not provide minimal conditions of security, peace, and justice to the victims of this war, such as Aarón Valencia and his family.
Legalization in the United States can, however, encourage Mexican activists, researchers, and other members of the drug policy community to develop new solutions with renewed intensity now that legalization is becoming a more accepted approach around the world. While the benefits of legalization in the United States may not immediately reach the Mexican people, they could serve as motivation to redouble efforts to bring about positive drug reform that leads to peace and stability in our country.
The Center for Research and Teaching in Economics is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.
Froylán Enciso is a professor of the Drug Policy Program at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics.
Brenda Pérez is a PhD candidate in Latin American studies at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.