Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is expected to make Mexico the largest legal cannabis market in the world when he signs a new marijuana law awaiting passage in the Senate. When he does, U.S. lawmakers will have to choose between the people and the prison industrial complex.
MEXICO CITY — For years now, dozens of pro-marijuana activists have gathered in front of Mexico’s Congressional building on Reforma Avenue in the largest city in the Americas to spark up and tacitly remind lawmakers of a landmark 2012 ruling by the country’s Supreme Court, that declared a ban on recreational marijuana to be unconstitutional.
Just shy of a decade later, the precedent created by that historic decision is on the brink of a full flowering as the lower house of the Mexican Congress approved the federal regulation of cannabis by a 316 to 129 vote on Wednesday. The legislation is expected to pass easily in the Senate and be signed into law by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in short order.
Nearly four years after Mexico’s legalization of medical marijuana, extending legal status to recreational use will make it the principal marijuana market in North America and, possibly, the world. The implications for commercial interests on both sides of the border are considerable and American businesses, in particular, are keeping a close eye on developments south of the border
While dispensaries might not start popping up next to the neighborhood convenience store just yet, hemp – ganja’s less psychedelic cousin – could represent an immediate and lucrative market opportunity after the law is officially on the books, according to Raul Elizalde, CEO of HempMeds.
Hemp’s many industrial and biodegradable uses have been largely proscribed throughout the global supply chain of industrial goods in the twentieth century and remain so as a result of several factors that encompass everything from the emergence of synthetic fibers like Nylon, competing interests from paper production monopolies, to the persistence of racist, colonialist attitudes among wealthy elites, who have used the prohibition of marijuana and other natural substances to target the indigenous cultures that stand in the way of their global resource extraction projects.
A medieval approach
Mexico has been at the heart of exact hat that type of neocolonialist war for the past several decades as the epicenter of America’s Drug War, which continues to claim the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and has brought the nation to the edge of collapse.
The move to legalize marijuana by Obrador, who has been a strong proponent of decriminalization, is a significant step in the administration’s efforts to find a way out of a tragedy that has engulfed his country as the wildly profitable market for illicit drugs north of the border fuels the power of the Cartels.
Obrador’s recent clashes with the U.S. Department of Justice over the never-mentioned American cartels who facilitate the flow of narcotics inside the United States reveal a growing resistance among Mexico’s power structures to the broader drug war narrative and a desire to escape the vicious downward spiral the country finds itself in.
Regardless of the vested interests that inevitably surround such a potentially lucrative endeavor, such as the legislation’s obvious tilt in favor of large corporations over smaller investors and other regulatory inconsistencies that fail to fully address issues surrounding civil liberties and police corruption in Mexico, the law nevertheless represents a sea change that will shine a harsh light on the United States’ own medieval approach to the matter.
The numbers don’t add up
It wouldn’t be the first time Mexico exposed its powerful neighbor’s unenlightened ways. While the plantation economy was in full swing in the United States, an underground railroad departing from South Texas was carrying runaway African slaves into Mexico, which had abolished slavery in 1829. For decades, irregular and informal forces like the Texas Rangers hunted down the men and women who sought their freedom across the border until the medieval practice was finally brought to an end after the Civil War.
The economic incentive to keep a system of forced labor afloat had to be forcibly removed through the efforts of abolitionists and those who placed moral principles over profits. A similar dynamic is at play in the case of marijuana in the United States and the insistence on maintaining its classification as a Schedule 1 drug, in accordance with the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.
At around $66 Billion, the illegal cannabis market in the United States comprises well over half of the legal marijuana markets in the country, including California and New York. Given the paucity of permitted marijuana businesses presently operating at a state level, there is little doubt that full federal legalization along the lines of Mexico’s would easily surpass that figure.
From this vantage point, it would seem like a no-brainer to remove all the barriers and allow a legal marijuana market to flourish all across the United States. However, such a move would entail a serious problem for another industry altogether, not to mention a basic tenet of the war on drugs, which has expressed itself as a war against minorities at a domestic level and has been described as “the new Jim Crow.”
The United States has the largest prison population in the world in both real numbers and per capita. At 2.3 million people behind bars, the value of the correctional facilities industry in America has been calculated at $5 Billion, according to a recent market research report. But, this is only a sliver of an enormous prison and judicial complex, that includes private security firms, police departments, lawyers, and federal and state court systems that rely on marijuana arrests and convictions for a significant portion of their business.
A 2020 study published by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) spanning several years, reveals that in 2010, 52% of all drug arrests were for marijuana, while between 2001 and 2010, 7 million people were processed through the justice system for some kind of marijuana offense.
The racial disparity between black offenders and white offenders was also made patently clear with black people shown to be four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite that black and white people use pot at practically the same rate.
According to Prisonpolicy.org, 10.6 million people go to jail each year. Known as “jail churn”, this staggering turnover rate is comprised of are people who, for the most part, have not been convicted of any crime and will either make bail or remain incarcerated for the jail term if they’re too poor to procure the means for release. Most who are convicted are usually serving time for misdemeanors, such as possession of marijuana.
In 2019, marijuana arrests surpassed arrests for all violent crimes put together, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting statistics. Of those arrests, 92% were for misdemeanor possession. Erik Altieri of the cannabis advocacy group NORML decries the fact that “at a time when the overwhelming majority of Americans want cannabis to be legal and regulated”, police departments across the country are making a “marijuana-related arrest every 58 seconds.”
Mexico’s decision to ‘legalize it’ will put pressure on American lawmakers to make a choice. They can either side with the majority of Americans who want an end to legal restrictions on a plant or they can continue to side with a growing police state and prison industrial complex by demonizing their neighbor to the south and shave a few seconds off the 58.
Feature photo | Marijuana plants grow at a camp outside of the country’s Senate building in Mexico City, July 16, 2020. Fernando Llano | AP
Raul Diego is a MintPress News Staff Writer, independent photojournalist, researcher, writer and documentary filmmaker.