Mexico is poised to become the biggest legal marijuana market in the world. Who will most benefit?

Steve C Borderland Beat  LAT   TY Steve C

An activist smokes marijuana in a
protest camp in front of the Mexican Senate building. (Ricardo Castelan Cruz /
Eyepix Group / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

The Mexican marijuana revolution
is just steps away from the Senate, where activists have tended a fragrant
cannabis garden for the past nine months.

Every day hundreds of people
stroll through a maze of towering green plants, freely ignite joints and get
tall.

Its billowing smoke is meant to
remind senators who have to struggle to get to work. Legislators have until
December 15 to pass a pot law by order of the Supreme Court, which ruled a
marijuana ban unconstitutional two years ago.

After decades of restrictive drug
policies that sparked deadly cartel wars, Mexico is poised to become the
largest legal cannabis market in the world.

The upcoming deadline has
intensified the debate about what exactly legalization should look like and who
should benefit from it. Among the questions haunted by lawmakers, how easy or
difficult should it be for users to buy and consume a pot? And should the
estimated 200,000 families who grow it now be protected from competition with
the big overseas marijuana companies that have been battling for influence?

“You have a wide range of
people willing to get involved,” said Avis Bulbulyan, a Glendale-based
advisor who has advised several US weed companies looking to expand into
Mexico. “The question is, ‘Who can benefit from it?'”

A bill that would allow private
companies to sell marijuana to the public is expected to pass in the Senate
within two weeks and then go to the lower house of Congress, Senate Chairman
Ricardo Monreal said.

Marijuana plants outside the
Mexico Senate building. (Ricardo Castelan Cruz / Eyepix Group / Barcroft Media
via Getty Images)

Activists, who planted their
first marijuana crop alongside the Senate in February, criticized an early bill
as being unjustified for big business. One condition is that commercial
marijuana be traceable from seed to sale, which would require expensive, high-tech
testing that would be unaffordable for smaller growers.

The bill also limits individual
growers to six plants and requires that anyone who wishes to consume obtain
licenses from the government.

Pepe Rivera, whose Mexican
cannabis movement is behind the protest garden, said such restrictions were a
form of prohibition and would lead to continued criminalization of consumers.

“You don’t think about
users,” said Rivera. “You think about the industry.”

Alejandro Madrazo, researcher at
the Center for Economic Research and Education’s Mexican think tank, said
lobbyists from Canada and the US had played an outsized role in shaping the
legislation that he believed would create an “elite gourmet market”.
that would benefit large corporations and upper class users.

“It basically revives the
ban for the poor, but creates a legal market for big companies,” he said.

Monreal denied that large
corporations dictated the law.

“There has been a lot of
interference … transnational corporations trying to influence our decisions,”
he said. “But we make the final decision.”

Mexican potted activists camped
outside the Senate building growing a crop of marijuana plants. (Ricardo
Castelan Cruz / Eyepix Group / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

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The various parties have been united
on one front: all claim that legalization will reshuffle the criminal landscape
and reduce the cartel-related violence that is rocking the country.

However, security experts say
this is far from safe.

Pot still plays a major role in
Mexican drug trafficking, but its importance has diminished as legalization in
Canada and several US states has dramatically reduced the demand for Mexican
pot.

In the past fiscal year, U.S.
Customs and Border Patrol seized 266,882 pounds of marijuana, compared with 4.3
million pounds in 2009.

Today, drug addicts regularly
discover specialty varieties of retail-grade cannabis grown in the US and
smuggled into Mexico.

Some analysts say marijuana
dealers will easily find new illegal ventures. Mexico’s cartels have already
specialized in people smuggling, fuel theft, and agricultural industries like
the avocado trade.

Proponents of legalization are on
firmer ground if they argue that it would relieve the police from focusing on
more serious crimes and greatly reducing pressure on the country’s penal
system, which houses around 200,000 inmates.

A survey by the Center for
Economic Research and Teaching among 821 federal prisoners found that almost
50% of the inmates had been convicted of drug crimes.

Almost 60% were jailed for marijuana
possession, compared with 27% for cocaine. Four in ten people were arrested for
possession of illegal substances that they said were worth less than $ 25.

Cannabis came to Mexico in the
16th century when Spanish colonial authorities used hemp to make rope and
sails. At the beginning of the 20th century, the country had banned marijuana.

That began to change a decade ago
when lawmakers decriminalized possession of small amounts of cannabis and a
series of lawsuits against the ban reached the Supreme Court.

In 2018, the court lifted the
prohibition on recreational use in Mexico, saying that individual freedom
outweighs all possible disadvantages.

“The effects caused by
marijuana do not justify an absolute ban on its use,” the court said.

Legislators were also instructed
to amend articles of a health law that prohibit the use of marijuana.

Numerous delays have left users
in a legal gray area as, while the Supreme Court did indeed decriminalize the
drug, there are still no laws in place to regulate recreational use.

A warehouse outside the Mexico
Senate building where activists grew a crop of marijuana plants. (Ricardo
Castelan Cruz / Eyepix Group / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Legislators who support
legalization recently put a common and small marijuana bush into a legislative
session, and the authorities did not interfere with the garden outside the
Senate, which currently houses around 1,000 plants.

At the same time, activists say
users are still regularly being arrested or forced to pay police bribes for
marijuana possession.

Medical marijuana patients are in
a similarly dire situation. In 2017, then-President Enrique Peña Nieto signed a
decree legalizing cannabis for medical purposes under a separate mandate from
the Supreme Court. The government has stalled in implementing the necessary
regulations and the drug remains inaccessible to many patients.

“There’s not enough
political will,” said Raúl Elizalde, whose daughter Grace became a
figurehead for medical marijuana, which helps treat her epilepsy.

Elizalde, the executive director
of a company that plans to sell medical marijuana in Mexico, said provisions on
the medicinal use of cannabis are likely to be included in legislation that
Congress is considering.

Even if a law is passed by
Congress, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is a big question mark.

Activists believed he would be an
ally as he voted to end the ban and his election for Interior Minister Olga
Sánchez Cordero, a former Supreme Court judge and advocate for the legalization
of marijuana.

But López Obrador, an evangelical
Christian with a conservative stance on social issues, also takes stock of
public opinion, and polls show that 60% of Mexicans are against legalization.

Since taking office, he has
remained largely silent on the matter while his administration has run ads
reminiscent of Nancy Reagan’s 1980s anti-drug campaign. “There is no happy
ending with drugs,” warn the ads.

“We had high hopes, but we
don’t have a clear message from the president,” said Mariana Sevilla de
los Rios, the founder of a group called Mexico Regulates.

If a bill is not signed, the
Supreme Court could remove marijuana bans from current law.

In the meantime, activists in the
marijuana garden are continuing their campaign to make cannabis appear as
harmless as any other plant in this green metropolis.

Since the pandemic, they have
limited the number of people who can enter the garden. Visitors have taken
their temperature and have 30 minutes to walk around and smoke.

Activists maintain a cannabis
garden outside the Mexican Senate. (Kate Linthicum/Los Angeles Times)

On a cool afternoon when reggae
was being played by a speaker, Omar Emiliano Velasco Hurtado, a 23-year-old
merchant marine from Veracruz state, was shoveling dirt to create a walkway
between two clusters of plants.

“I just wanted to see what
it’s like to smoke a joint in the middle of town,” he said. When he heard
that there was still something to be done, he happily volunteered.

After working with a group of
other volunteers for a few minutes, he stopped and raised a joint to his lips.

He turned to a new friend and
asked a question, “Do you have a light?”?