EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – The Chamber of Deputies last week put the brakes on the legalization of marijuana in Mexico. However, that country’s president on Tuesday said he expects approval in early 2021 of legislation decriminalizing possession and consumption of small amounts of marijuana.

“They asked the (Mexican) Supreme Court for an extension because the two chambers could not come to an agreement and they were running out of time to make revisions. But it’s an issue of form, not substance. I believe this will be resolved” in the next session, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said in his daily news conference.

The Mexican Senate last month approved a landmark bill decriminalizing the possession of up to 28 grams (1 ounce) of the drug, allowing individuals to grow up to six plants and licensing production and sales. It also created a commission within the Health Department to regulate the cannabis law.

The Chamber of Deputies was under a Dec. 15 Mexican Supreme Court deadline to approve the law, but deputies asked for and got an extension through the end of April. The deputies are expected to pick up the discussion in early February.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador

“There is no opposition to what the Senate authorized regarding the medicinal and limited use of marijuana. It’s just a matter of errors, lack of precision about the amounts and other contradictions in the law itself, and that’s what will be resolved,” Lopez Obrador said.

If that happens, Mexico would be the second country in Latin America – after Uruguay – to decriminalize recreational use of small amounts of marijuana.

The premise might seem odd in a nation plagued by drug cartel violence and with rising rates of addiction in northern border cities. But experts say it reflects a change of attitude in Mexican collective thought and won’t necessarily fuel more violence or addictions.

“There have been warnings in other countries that legalization can lead to an increase in use and problematic use among youth. Those concerns haven’t borne out. I think that will be the case in Mexico as well,” said John Walsh, drug policy director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

“This is a citizen fight against a culture of prohibition that has existed for more than 100 years,” added Emilio Alvarez Icaza, a Mexican senator who represents the Ahora political coalition. “There is an extraordinary opportunity to focus on rights, for the state to combat the stigmatization, the discrimination that (marijuana) smokers suffer.”

He said more than 18,000 people are jailed under drug trafficking laws in Mexico for being caught with small amounts of marijuana.

“What concerns me is that (the bill) does not provide enough protections to small farmers against transnational corporations” that will want to dominate the new Mexican market, Alvarez said.

Trade magazines have mentioned at least one Canadian cannabis firm having an interest in entering the Mexican market. And Walsh said some Canadian companies see a potential market and probably have provided input regarding the law.

However, an official with Aurora Cannabis (ACB) was non-committal when approached by Border Report.

“We continuously monitor the advancement of international markets and will determine our investment in markets where it fits well with our strategic direction. Aurora does not currently operate in Mexico,” said Michelle Lefler, vice president for communications and public relations for Aurora.

Mixed feelings on legalization and crime

Carlos Enrique, a Juarez maquiladora worker, says he has no problem with peers who smoke marijuana “to relax.” But he worries that overt availability might lead to trouble.

“Here in the maquilas, lots of people use it. Some work even harder, depending on their body. That’s good but also bad because of violence and vandalism,” he said.

Walsh said the more lucrative aspect of marijuana for Mexican criminal organizations is in the export market – traffickers fighting for control of routes and shipments to the United States.

But he said legalization of cannabis in a growing number of states is making trafficking marijuana into the United States less appealing for the cartels.

Trends in drug seizures at U.S. ports (CBP)

“Even if the local market is increasing, it’s clear that cannabis exports may have plateaued. Seizures, at least, have plateaued. It’s clear fentanyl and synthetic drugs are going up. Those fields seem more lucrative to be involved in,” he said.

Walsh added that legalizing marijuana in Mexico is “the proper step” given it cuts down on the need to procure a clandestine dealer but will not immediately translate into a reduction in violence.

“Regardless of whether prohibition remains in place or legalization begins, any government in order to tackle violence needs to prevent it and be able to appropriately punish it and provide justice,” he said. “I think those are the big questions for Mexico regardless of legal regulation of cannabis.”

Mexican citizens and even some government officials have expressed frustration at the apparent impunity enjoyed by leaders of criminal organizations. Some local officials in Juarez have told Border Report they often arrest drug traffickers only to have federal authorities decline to prosecute or have a judge toss out the case.

Walsh also echoed Alvarez’s worries about “the little guy” farmer being excluded from producing legal marijuana.

“The concern is that this new industry not be captured by the elite and controlled by a small group of people to enrich themselves and exclude smaller growers – those who have been subject to arrest and incarceration. I think Mexico is doing the right thing with legalization but the devil will be in the details for the regime,” he said.

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