Mexico is catching up to US states on marijuana legalization

Mexico’s president is pro herbal medicine.
Mexico’s president is pro herbal medicine.
Image: Reuters/Edgard Garrido
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It’s impossible not to notice what the neighbors are doing when you’re as close as Mexico and California. Over the past two decades, the latter has increasingly embraced marijuana legalization, from the authorization of medical pot in 1996 to a vote last month that legalized marijuana for recreational use. Now Mexico is starting to follow suit.

On Dec. 13, Mexican senators overwhelmingly voted (98-7) to legalize medicinal marijuana, eight months after president Peña Nieto proposed a review of national drug policy. The bill must now pass Mexico’s lower Chamber of Deputies, but is already being heralded by lawmakers: Senator Cristina Diaz called it an important first step in laying the foundation for a national medical marijuana industry. It’s also a logical stop on the path to full legalization, which cannabis advocates say would quell gang activity that has plagued Mexico for years.

There was consensus to ”do something different in drug policy,” said Senator Angelica de la Pena Gomez, because prohibition “has generated high levels of violence, more than 100,000 deaths and the systematic violation of human rights.”

Meanwhile, California companies are already finding ways to turn what’s long been an illegal route into a legal, profitable, and reciprocal one. HempMeds Mexico, a subsidiary of Poway-California-based Medical Marijuana Inc., plans to export therapeutic hemp oils—some containing cannabidiol, or CBD, which doesn’t produce a high; and some containing THC, which does—to Mexico and Colombia. The company is also in talks with other Latin American nations.

In the US, a similar trend toward legalization has been led by individual states. Washington DC and 29 other states have passed laws, with various caveats, allowing medical marijuana use. As of next month, recreational marijuana will be legal in Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Washington DC. Possession has been decriminalized in 13 states.

Overall, more than 20% of adult Americans now have access to marijuana, medically or recreationally, due to changes in state laws. But cannabis is still illegal according to the federal government, which continues to classify it as a schedule I substance with no medicinal benefits whatsoever.

The US Drug Enforcement Administration seemed to double-down on that definition earlier this month, when it announced plans to finally implement a 5-year-old proposal to add a new administrative code for cannabis extracts, essentially lumping hemp oils containing CBD (long considered legal in the US) with those containing THC. The move caused an uproar among marijuana advocates, but may actually suggest the DEA is inching closer to accepting weed therapeutically. The new codes are intended to expedite CBD research. “From a practical standpoint, we are giving priority, actually, to those researchers who are conducting research with marijuana extracts, [which] the internal code will allow us to track and prioritize,” DEA spokesman Russ Baer told US News & World Report.

While November’s elections furthered legalization efforts in many states, they also introduced a new obstacle: president-elect Donald Trump. Despite the evidence that weed legalization boosts tax revenue and can save lives, Trump’s administration seems unlikely to favor additional moves in that direction. His pick for attorney general, Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, said in a hearing this year that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” All of which means that states enjoying the benefits of legal weed face an uncertain future, and Mexico will have to toe a delicate line between honoring international agreements and rethinking its own policies.

With any luck, legal marijuana will appeal to Trump on one level: It’s lucrative. Revenue from California’s cannabis industry—with recreational weed now added to its 20-year-old medical marijuana market—is projected to reach $6.5 billion annually by 2020, from $2.8 billion in 2015, the Cannabist reports. The national market could generate $20 billion in sales by 2020, according to Arcview Group, a marijuana industry incubator. Another report, from analysts at Cowen & Co., estimated that the national cannabis industry could reach $50 billion by 2026.