Activists and citizens marched and protest for the recreational use and legalization of marijuana, Mexico City. Photo: Gill Figueroa/

After a century of prohibition, Mexico decriminalizes recreational cannabis

After a Supreme Court ruling, adults over 18 can now consume and possess marijuana with a government-issued permit, but the sale and distribution of cannabis remains illegal, for now

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Nearly three years after Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled the nation’s marijuana prohibition is unconstitutional, the country’s highest court issued a landmark ruling on Monday that decriminalizes the possession and recreational use of cannabis. This clears the path to legalization and ends a century of marijuana prohibition in Mexico.

Based on the court’s ruling, any adult of legal age who applies for a permit will be able to consume marijuana legally, provided they grow it at home and follow other restrictions, including not smoking it in public, using marijuana around children, or driving while under the influence.

The Supreme Court stepped in to issue this week’s ruling after Congress missed its April 30 deadline to pass recreational cannabis use legislation on its own. 

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Mexico‘s Senate approved a draft legalization bill last November, and the Lower House approved a revised version on March 10. That revised bill was sent back to the Senate for final approval, but the bill stalled due to disagreements over the details of the new law. 

“Today is a historic day for liberties,” court president Arturo Zaldivar said, after eight of the 11 judges backed the decision, which struck down sections of Mexico’s laws that prohibited the consumption and growing of marijuana plants. 

Following the ruling, Mexicans of legal age may request permission from the Federal Commission for Protection against Health Risks (Cofepris), which is part of the Health Secretariat, to consume, possess and grow small amounts of marijuana for personal use.

The court ordered Cofepris to issue guidelines for acquiring permits and instructions about how the public may legally acquire marijuana seeds.

The medicinal use of cannabis has been legal in Mexico since June 2017, but until this week’s ruling, recreational consumption had been limited to those who had been granted a special judicial waiver.

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No green light yet for business

Though decriminalizing recreational cannabis is welcome news for legalization advocates, the sale and distribution of marijuana remain a crime. During the Supreme Court session, Justice Norma Lucía Piña Hernández emphasized that while Congress is not legislating on the issue, “in no case is importing, marketing, or supplying” marijuana legal. 

Mexico becomes the third country in the Western Hemisphere to legalize recreational marijuana use nationwide, after Uruguay and Canada; but for now, any aspirations of making Mexico the world’s largest legal marijuana market remain on hold: a major disappointment for would-be entrepreneurs and investors.

According to a report by Endeavor, Mexico is the world’s second-largest cannabis producer, turning out up to 27,000 tons per year, while the Latin American Cannabis Alliance (Alcann) calculates that the medicinal and recreational industry could generate more than $22 billion in four years.

Monday’s Supreme Court ruling will stay in place until the Senate passes further legislation. In the meantime, experts are wary of critical issues that remain unresolved.

Mexico United Against Crime, a non-governmental organization, said the decision “does not decriminalize the activities necessary to carry out consumption” such as production, possession and transportation of marijuana.

The court’s ruling also “leaves a legal vacuum with respect to the consumption, cultivation and distribution of cannabis.” It’s now up to Congress to issue the necessary legislation.

Monday’s Supreme Court ruling increases the pressure on Congress to revisit the comprehensive bill approved by the Lower House in March to hammer out the details around establishing a system of licenses for the entire chain of production, distribution and sales, while addressing the historic impact of criminalization and ensuring a fair and equitable market for small and indigenous growers.

On Tuesday, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said he will respect the court’s verdict, but left the door open to calling for a public referendum on the subject. 

Of course, we will respect what the court has decided and we will evaluate it. We will see what effect it has. If we see…that it’s not working to address the serious problem of drug addiction, that it’s not working to stop violence, then we would act

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico’s president, at a press conference.

End of marijuana’s national prohibition on the U.S. Supreme Court’s radar too

The constitutionality of a national prohibition policy and the disconnect between federal and state regulations is also on the radar of the United States Supreme Court. Though federal law still forbids intrastate possession, cultivation, or distribution of marijuana, 18 states and Washington D.C. have already legalized marijuana for adults who are over the age of 21, and the number of states in the U.S. allowing recreational marijuana use is expected to grow. 

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One of the U.S. Supreme Court’s most conservative justices, Clarence Thomas, issued a statement this week slamming the government’s inconsistent approach to marijuana policy as “contradictory” and “unstable” and suggested that national prohibition might be unconstitutional. His comments were made in response to the court declining to take up a new case related to an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) investigation into tax deductions claimed by a Colorado marijuana dispensary. Last year, the nine justices declined to hear a case that challenged the constitutionality of federal cannabis prohibition, but Thomas’s comments hint that this position may be shifting.

While the U.S. may not have reached a tipping point on national legalization yet, one thing is certain: the country now finds itself squeezed between Canada and Mexico where recreational marijuana use is legal or decriminalized and businesses are poised to cash in on an exploding cannabis economy. It’s only a matter of time before the political and economic pressure on the U.S. becomes great enough to justify national marijuana policy reform.