Higher Stakes, The Limits Of Legalizing Marijuana In Mexico

Differently than places like the Netherlands or the state of Colorado, legalizing cannabis in Mexico is colored by the presence of drug cartels — and the absence of the state.

A man rolls a marijuana joint in Palenque, Mexico
A man rolls a marijuana joint in Palenque, Mexico
Luis Rubio


MEXICO CITY — The recent suggestion by Enrique de la Madrid, Mexico's Minister for Tourism, to decriminalize marijuana is certainly worthy of debate. We should recognize that insecurity makes our country a less attractive travel destination, and at least consider what role the illicit trafficking of drugs — particularly marijuana — has in contributing to the problem.

Even the mere suggestion that cannabis could be legalized as a way to reduce insecurity (and boost tourism) has generated no shortage of reaction. There are two relevant issues at play: one is the impact of the liberalization on the drug market; the second is the connection between drugs and security. While they may seem directly connected, each follows different dynamics: the factors that govern the drug market, whether legal or illegal, are not necessarily those that determine the wider criminal conduct of gangs and cartels.

No one can now deny what has finally been said out loud: drug use in Mexico is a reality and drugs are easily accessible here. They may be illegal, but there is a market for them and it is easy to buy certain drugs, especially marijuana.

The countries that have taken the path of legalization offer some valuable lessons: liberalizing drug use increases consumption rates because it makes a previously hidden market transparent. These experiences show that the risks associated with consumption diminish as the product itself becomes standardized (eliminating toxic components that often come with the black market, for example); and with an open market, the violence and risks associated with the process of acquisition tend to disappear. These make the benefits of liberalizing drug use obvious.

The problem of international comparisons is that they are not entirely relevant to the Mexican reality in one crucial aspect: all the significant experiences in places like the Netherlands, Uruguay and more recently the U.S. states of Colorado and California, rest on the presence of capable government authorities able to regulate a liberalized market. In all these cases, the government has assumed the role of supervisor regarding product quality, consumption limits and prerequisites of use, especially age.

When you assume there is a working government that can oversee the market and assure people's security, the discussion about drugs essentially becomes about the morals. Should a government take charge of people's health, or is it for them to decide how to manage their own lives? It is a philosophical debate that eventually turns ideological.

We are peculiar in Mexico for our double standards on drugs and our confusion about their relation to security. Discussions about liberalization often assume that lifting prohibitions will immediately restore public order. There is a fallacy in making such a correlation.

Our problem is ultimately not one of drugs, but of the absence of government.

My position is that drugs, or at least marijuana, should be legalized, but without expecting this to resolve the country's security problem. Certainly eliminating drug gangs' massive revenues would weaken them and help balance the power relationship between police and criminals. Yet beyond the immediate environment (and you could certainly improve security in a particular neighborhood or city), this particular market is not local, but sourced in the United States. Also, we should remember that the most important drug is not marijuana (of which we are exporting less and less), but more profitable and more dangerous substances like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine.

It is crucial to recognize that our problem is ultimately not one of drugs, corruption or violence per se, but of the absence of government. There are two reasons for that. One is that our centralized political system was created a century ago and has yet to be adjusted in the age of political decentralization. State governments have still not created the necessary policing, legal and administrative capabilities to better the lives of their citizens. Our other problem is the immense wealth that organized crime networks mafia have amassed from their businesses abroad. So liberalizing drugs would not change their working dynamics nor affect "sectors' like kidnapping, extortion and theft.

Our insecurity is the result of an absence of governance and the enormous (corrupting and violating) power of criminal organizations. Liberalizing marijuana would affect these, but would be far from decisive. We must urgently open a national discussion about drugs and crime, but separately. Liberalization is necessary, but is hardly a panacea.

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