Another Latin American country mulls letting its people grow pot

September 6, 2013
September 6, 2013

It’s been barely a month since Uruguay moved closer to legalizing marijuana, and now another Latin American country appears to be following suit.

Mexico City’s council is mulling legislation (Spanish link) that would allow citizens to cultivate up to three cannabis plants each, and permit a system of marijuana growing co-operatives, or “non-profit private clubs,” reports AFP. As well as giving people the leeway to grow pot, it would help the government keep tabs on both cannabis production and consumption.

The proposals were announced at a three-day forum on drug policy in Mexico City. The country decriminalized the possession of small amounts for personal use four years ago, but support for more liberal measures has grown on the heels of a gruesome wave of drug-related violence that has left 75,000 people dead since 2006. The country spends billions of dollars every year on the drug war, and the US has contributed $1.6 billion. That strategy, said a representative of the UN Drugs and Crime department, Antonio Mazzitelli, at the forum, “has not afforded the expected results,” though he didn’t advocate legalization instead.

One of the most outspoken advocates of marijuana legalization in Mexico has turned out to be former president Vicente Fox. Originally a staunch prohibitionist, Fox now argues that as the US—which buys most of Mexico’s grass—moves towards legalization, with two states now permitting the cultivation and sale of marijuana for recreational use, it no longer makes sense for Mexico to keep up the war on the drug.

And if the US were to fully legalize it on a federal level, allowing it to be imported, it would change the drug economy south of the border. The US State department estimates that US drug users send some $19 to $29 billion (pdf, p. 2) to Mexican drug cartels every year—several billions of which in turn go into protection and bribes that keep the illegal trade alive and corrupt large swathes of Mexican law enforcement.

Legalizing marijuana would also open the door for scores of informal workers to join the official work force. Narcotics expert Vanda Felbab-Brown from the Brookings Institution told the Council for Foreign Relations (CFR) she believes as much as half of Mexico’s population works in the “informal, if not illegal, economy.” Officials estimate that at least half a million people are employed by Mexico’s drug trade, and estimates of the total size of the drug economy range from $6 billion to $39 billion (pdf, p. vii and p. 29-30). If that were legal and taxed, it could also bring in billions of dollars in extra government revenue.

However, Mexico’s current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, opposes the idea. Like his predecessor Felipe Calderón, he has supported an aggressive anti-drug strategy, using ground troops to counter drug trafficking and detain key kingpins. And the Mexican populace isn’t all that high on the idea, either; according to a poll released last month (Spanish link) by research firm GCE, almost 50% of Mexicans were “totally opposed” to marijuana legalization, compared to the paltry 14% who strongly favored it.

Mexico City, however, could function as a testing ground of sorts. Traditionally more left-wing than much of the country, it has already set itself apart in recent years by legalizing abortion and gay marriage. An experiment with marijuana might be next.

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