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

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 Mexican marijuana revolution is just steps away from the Senate, where activists have tended a fragrant cannabis garden for the past nine months.
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)
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?"
Cecilia Sanchez of the Times Mexico City Office contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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