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Pot Isn’t Legal Yet in Mexico, But a Landmark Supreme Court Decision Has Opened the Door

Marijuana cultivation. Image courtesy of A7nubis under CC license.

The Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation (SCJN), Mexico's highest judicial authority, approved a resolution presented by Justice Arturo Zaldívar Lelo de Larrea declaring unconstitutional several articles of the country's Act Respecting Public Health, thereby conferring on four specific individuals the right to grow and consume cannabis for their personal use.

Debate over Zaldivar's resolution took place behind closed doors in the Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court. The newspaper La Jornada explained certain aspects of the judgement:

La sentencia, que se oficializará en sesión pública, declara la inconstitucionalidad de los artículos 235, 237, 245, 247 y 248 de la Ley General de Salud, en las porciones que establecen una prohibición para que la Secretaría de Salud emita autorizaciones “para la realización de los actos relacionados con el consumo personal con fines recreativos (sembrar, cultivar, cosechar, preparar, poseer, transportar) exclusivamente el estupefaciente cannabis (su resina, preparados y semillas) y el psicotrópico THC que en conjunto son conocidos como mariguana.

The ruling, which will be formalized in an open session, declares unconstitutional Articles 235, 237, 245, 247, and 248 of the Act Respecting Public Health, insofar as they prohibit the Ministry of Health from granting authorizations “to perform acts related to personal use for recreational purposes (sowing, growing, harvesting, preparing, possessing, transporting) of cannabis (its resin, production, and seeds) and the psychotropic narcotic THC exclusively, which together are known as marijuana.

The resolution does not, however, mean that just anyone can legally cultivate marijuana, known as “mota” on the streets of Mexico. Neither does the Supreme Court's judgment imply a widespread reform of drug possession laws, which remain in force. For the time being, the judicial decision only benefits the four appellants who filed an injunction claiming that the law infringed upon their individual rights to differentiate themselves from the rest of society, a notion that is enshrined in the Mexican constitution and is protected by the writ of “amparo”.

The case sets a precedent in Mexican history, however, and opens the door to legalization.

In his own words, journalist Carlos Puig summed up Justice Zaldívar Lelo de Larrea‘s resolution:

El proyecto del Ministro Zaldívar al amparo 237/2014 propone a la Primera Sala declarar inconstitucionales “los artículos 235, 237, 245, 247 y 248, todos de la Ley General de Saludo en las porciones que establecen una prohibición para que la Secretaría de Salud emita autorizaciones para la realización de los actos relacionados con el consumo personal con fines recreativos (sembrar, cultivar, cosechar, preparar, poseer, transportar), en relación únicamente y exclusivamente con el estupefaciente ‘cannabis’ (sativa, índica y americana o mariguana, su resina, preparados y semillas) y el psicotrópico THC”.

En castellano: no debe ser delito sembrar mariguana en nuestro jardín para nuestro consumo.

In plain Spanish, it should not be a crime to grow marijuana in our own gardens for our own personal use. 

Debate on Zaldívar's resolution was scheduled to take place in October, but that was postponed and didn't occur until November 4 in the presence of all the Justices of the Criminal Chamber, whereby it was adopted in a 4-1 vote.

The central tenet of the resolution is that consumption of marijuana is a question of individual freedom.

Con todo, debe enfatizarse que esta Primera Sala no minimiza los daños que puede ocasionar la marihuana en el consumidor mayor de edad, sin embargo, entiende que la decisión sobre su uso sólo le corresponde tomarla a cada individuo. Así, este Alto Tribunal considera que pertenece al estricto ámbito de la autonomía individual protegido por el derecho al libre desarrollo de la personalidad la posibilidad de decidir responsablemente si desea experimentar los efectos de esa sustancia a pesar de los daños que esta actividad puede generarle a una persona.

It should be emphasized that the Criminal Chamber does not minimize the harm that can result from consumption of marijuana by an adult; however, it does recognize that it is up to the individual to decide. Therefore, the High Court considers that the choice of whether to experiment responsibly with the substance, despite any harm it may cause them, rests strictly with the individual in their full autonomy and is protected by the right to free development of one's personality.

Zaldivar concluded:

Al declararse por parte de este Alto Tribunal la inconstitucionalidad de las disposiciones de la Ley General de Salud antes señaladas y, en consecuencia, permitírsele a los recurrentes recibir una autorización por parte de la Secretaría de Salud para realizar todas las actividades necesarias para el uso lúdico de la marihuana, al realizar éstas los recurrentes no incurrirán en los delitos contra la salud previstos tanto por la propia Ley General de Salud como por el Código Penal Federal.

The High Court, having deemed that the the provisions of the Act Respecting Public Health outlined above are unconstitutional, thereby grants the appellants authorization by the Minsitry of Health to undertake the activities required for the recreational use of marijuana. By so doing, the appellants shall not be considered to have committed any crimes against health whether set out in the Act Respecting Public Health or in the Federal Criminal Code.

The decision has generated a lot of comments throughout Mexican society, which Ernesto López Portillo compares to a soccer game:

Con la mariguana sucede como con el fútbol, todo mundo tiene una opinión que considera mejor a la de los otros, sepa o no sobre el asunto. Quien nunca, alguna o muchas veces le ha pegado al balón de pronto siente que puede corregir la estrategia del mejor director técnico del mundo; o quien jamás, alguna o muchas veces ha usado la mariguana, igualmente suele ir por el mundo señalando cuál debe ser la política pública en materia de drogas.

Marijuana is just like soccer: everyone has an opinion they think is better than anyone else's, whether they know what they're talking about or not. They may never have kicked a ball or done it a lot; either way they know more than the best coach in the world. It's the same with someone who has smoked a lot of pot or maybe hasn't even tried it, either way they walk around acting like experts on drug laws.

Lisa Sánchez, of the The Mexican Times, has come out in favor of the Court's decision. She explains why:

Pero ¿cuál es la importancia de este fallo y por qué debe aprobarse? En primer lugar, porque el proyecto constituye una oportunidad de oro para introducir la perspectiva de Derechos Humanos a la política de drogas y reconocer que la prohibición somete innecesariamente a las personas a un régimen punitivo que impide el pleno ejercicio de sus derechos. En segundo lugar, porque el análisis jurídico presentado por el Ministro Zaldívar reconoce la obligación del Estado de garantizar salud pública al tiempo en que delimita su capacidad de interferir con la vida privada de los individuos, tratándolos como adultos.

So why is this ruling important and why should it be ratified? First, because the project is a golden opportunity to inject a human rights perspective into drug policy and to recognize that prohibition subjects people to an unnecessarily punitive regime—one that abrogates the full exercise of their rights. Second, because the jurisprudence presented by Justice Zaldivar recognizes the state's obligation to ensure public health while at the same time limiting its ability to interfere in the private lives of individuals, effectively treating them like adults.

On social networks like Twitter, debate about the issue emerged quickly and shows no signs of ending. For instance, Catalina Hernández, a random Internet user, declared herself opposed to the legislation:

Good for the Justices, let's hope they don't legalize marijuana. It is danger to the health of our children.

Kique Hemphille, meanwhile, expressed a similar sentiment:

Sorry but I don't agree with legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes. And if yes, there should be regulation against it.

Jurist Fabián Aguinaco shared comments about the Zaldívar resolution regarding the right to decide for oneself:

When the freedom to choose dies, human society dies with it, and no rulebook or survey can change that.

The actor Luis Gerardo Méndez sent the following message to his followers:

Tomorrow could be a historic day. The @SCJN will debate the decriminalization of marijuana. Legalization is the beginning of the end of this war.

The war Méndez is referring to is the current strategy used to combat organized crime, which the Mexican government has pursed since late 2006. The strategy has sparked an internal armed conflict in which tens of thousands of people have died and many others disappeared. Given this backdrop, the decision taken by Mexico's highest judicial authority marks a turning point in the country's evaluation of laws and public policy governing narcotics, especially in light of recent state initiatives to decriminalize personal use of marijuana in the United States.

The issue is hardly resolved, however, and many questions remain. Does the Supreme Court of Justice have the fortitude to lead the country in this new direction? Or will it be muzzled by the traditional punitive approach that unleashed the war in the first place?

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