In a move that may send legal ripples across Latin America, Mexico’s Supreme Court Wednesday opened the door to the recreational use of marijuana, but affirmed a ban on sales and distribution of the substance.
Answering a petition of four citizens, the nation’s highest court ruled 4-1 to strike down various legal prohibitions on "recreational" use of marijuana, and said the four citizens may cultivate, possess and transport marijuana as long as it is for personal use.
Drug-related violence has left tens of thousands of Mexicans dead in the past decade as powerful narcotics cartels and government security forces have battled each other, putting a damper on debate about legalization that has been far more intense on the U.S. side of the common border.
President Enrique Peña Nieto, who has opposed any move toward drug legalization, said his government "respects and acknowledges the rulings" of the high court "including that related to the recreational use of marijuana."
He said that the ruling only affects the four citizens and that marijuana consumption remains illegal for the nation’s 118 million citizens.
"In no way does it mean that the consumption, commercialization and transport of marijuana has become legal," Peña Nieto said.
The president acknowledged, however, that the ruling "opens space for a broad debate about marijuana … even more so now that we are observing how in various parts of the world consumption of marijuana has been legalized."
The four activists who took the case to the Supreme Court in 2013 are part of a group with the Spanish-language acronym SMART – the Mexican Society for Responsible, Tolerant, Personal Consumption.
The majority opinion said that a blanket prohibition against marijuana – contained in five articles in the General Law on Health Matters – unconstitutionally infringed on the individual rights of the four activists who filed the legal petition.
In line with constitutional guarantees of personal freedom, the ruling said, it is up to any of the four individuals "if he desires to experiment with the effects of this substance, in spite of the dangers that this activity may engender."
Marijuana has been outlawed in Mexico since 1926.
The ruling said the decision "in no way implies authorization to commit acts of selling, providing or … distribution of these substances."
While the ruling affects only the rights of the four Mexicans who brought the petition, legal experts said any Mexican could now seek protection using the same arguments contained in Wednesday’s high court ruling, and that a broader challenge to marijuana prohibition appears likely.
In 2009, Mexico passed a law that decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, cocaine and heroin, mandating government financed drug treatment for those caught after a second time.
The move marked a liberalization trend that gained momentum further south in Latin America. In 2013, Uruguay legalized the production and government-regulated sale of marijuana. Chile also now debates decriminalization of marijuana for recreational and medicinal use.
Mexicans, scared by rampant violence of the narcotics cartels, have moved more slowly toward accepting legalization arguments even as they recognize the contradictions in maintaining existing laws while a movement toward legalization gains steam in the United States.
Twenty-three U.S. states now allow medical marijuana usage and four also allow its recreational use.
Mexico is a major source of low cost marijuana smuggled into the United States. During the early years of this decade, U.S. border authorities annually seized 1,300 to 1,400 tons of Mexican-grown marijuana a year, according to the Justice Department’s 2014 National Drug Threat Assessment Summary.