EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Mexicans are ready to let their neighbors smoke marijuana in their homes, but lawmakers worry the country lacks mental health services to deal with a surge in addicts.

That’s one of the concerns that prompted the Chamber of Deputies to halt momentum for the legalization of marijuana in Mexico last month.

“I am openly in favor (of legalization). I have no prejudice; people can do what they want with their lives and their bodies. But I am worried about public health,” said Francisco Villarreal Pasaret, who represents Chihuahua in Mexico’s lower house of Congress.

The issue transcends borders, as U.S. and Canadian companies involved in legal hemp production and derivatives sales are eyeing Mexico as a potential new market.

Legalization gained traction in late 2018 as the populist Morena political party swept the presidency and both houses of Congress in Mexico. The Senate approved legal sales and decriminalized possession of small amounts and production under license. The Chamber of Deputies was under a Supreme Court deadline to take a vote but requested and got an extension through the end of April to air out concerns.

Francisco Villarreal Pasaret

“In Mexico, we have a lag in mental health services. We don’t have enough hospitals or treatment centers. […] this initiative must be accompanied by greater funding for mental health,” said Villarreal, a member of the Morena Party.

According to the Mexican government, more than 2 million people are addicted to drugs, with 230,000 of those being minors. Drug addiction has skyrocketed since the early 2000s with the proliferation of criminal organizations who not only export illicit product to the United States but are bent on developing a domestic market, Mexican officials say.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in 2019 unveiled a national prevention strategy targeting schools, community centers and the news media and promised an initial $1.5 million boost to addiction treatment.

Villarreal says more money is needed.

“We must have more funding for addiction treatment. I think this is what people want, but it doesn’t make sense for (lawmakers) to say, ‘we’re open, we’re liberal,’ and on the other hand to ignore public health consequences,” he said.

Taking the marijuana market away from the cartels

Villarreal expects the Chamber of Deputies to begin discussing the legalization bill soon, first in committees and later in the full lower house. The initiative on Wednesday remained in the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies is on recess until February.

“It’s an issue that must be addressed from different points of view. From an economic aspect, I think it will be positive. […] If (marijuana sales) are legal, some illicit activity is bound to decrease, like it did in the United States in the 1930s with the repeal of Prohibition,” he said.

But such a decrease in crime will take time and facing legal competition in Mexico probably won’t deter the violent drug cartels from continuing to illegally export marijuana to the United States.

“They don’t just traffic marijuana; they’re involved in all sorts of substances. That is a separate issue that requires coordination between the federal authorities of both countries,’ Villareal said.

‘I think it will pass, but we want to do it right’

The lawmaker foresees much debate on legalization in the next couple of months and believes his peers will call for an “open parliament” before voting.

“We need to invite citizens, specialists and many voices to reach a consensus. We hope to approve it, but it has to be well thought out and have widespread support,” he said. “I think it will pass, but we want to do it right, with the necessary addiction and public safety safeguards.”

Derek Porter, chief of staff for Denver-based cannabis consulting Gateway Proven Strategies, concurs that Mexico will end up legalizing marijuana.

“That is the consensus from out network and boots on the ground in Mexico,” he told Border Report.

Porter said some in the industry think the Mexican market will develop international supply chains, but much will depend on the legal framework and what infrastructure accompanies this new market.

He urged potential investors to be patient and do careful research in formulating a business plan.

“This is the preparation period, but don’t strike until the iron is red hot. In other words, let government sort itself out,” Porter said, adding that “it’s inevitable, it will happen, so be patient and be ready.”

Villarreal said Mexican lawmakers haven’t finalized rules on foreign investment in a legal marijuana market.

“It’s a controversial topic. Some Mexican (entrepreneurs) have approached us with concerns that foreign companies would come in and take away business,” he said. “But it’s difficult for us as deputies because we have international treatment obligations […] we cannot just turn away foreign investment in Mexico.”

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