Mexico Moves to Legalize Medical Pot Amid Failed Drug War

  • Supreme Court allowed 4 people to grow cannabis in 2015 ruling
  • Nation pays high price for ineffective drug war: president

President Enrique Pena Nieto said Mexico will move to legalize marijuana for medicinal use in a stark shift for a leader who has made clamping down on all forms of drug trafficking a hallmark of his tenure.

Speaking to the United Nations, Pena Nieto said he would also raise the amount of marijuana that would be de-criminalized for personal consumption, calling its use a public health problem and urging policies that avoid punishing users.

His participation in a special UN General Assembly session on drugs came after months of growing public pressure for legalization following the Supreme Court’s November decision to give four people permission to grow cannabis at home. Since then, the issue has been the focus of debate in nationwide public forums.

"I give voice to those who have expressed the need to update the regulatory framework to authorize the use of marijuana for medical and scientific ends," Pena Nieto said Tuesday at the special session in New York focused on the global drug problem. Participants in forums in Mexico "showed the need to lift, in accordance with international standards, the amount of marijuana that can be considered for personal use, with the purpose of not criminalizing users.”

Marijuana is a significant illicit revenue source for the nation’s cartels. While estimates vary widely, analysts agree that marijuana, heroin and cocaine generate billions of dollars a year in revenue for cartels. In November, Pena Nieto said that while he was open to changing his position, he believed legalizing marijuana would open the door to use of more harmful drugs.

The nation’s drug war has left more than 150,000 people dead and 26,000 missing since 2006, according to an October U.N report. Last month, Mexican Interior Minister Miguel Osorio said the goal of the nation’s narcotics policy should be to weaken the illegal drug market, and the president of the Senate had said he supports some measure of legalization. The shift also comes as two dozen states in the U.S. have legalized some form of medical marijuana use, while cannabis is legal for recreational use in Washington and Colorado.

"It’s good because it reduces violence against users and it reduces users’ exposure to the criminal justice system," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "But in terms of impact on the behavior and revenue streams of criminal groups, I think it’s very small." Cartels in recent years have diversified into trafficking of heroin and methamphetamines, as well as other criminal activities like extortion and kidnapping.

Pena Nieto plans to hold an event on Thursday to discuss Mexico’s marijuana policy change.

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