How Will Legalization Impact The Mexican Drug War?

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Mexican lawmakers, judges, and cannabis activists have spent the last decade trying to legalize marijuana, and now it looks like legalization could be a reality very soon.

Not only would legalization allow many more residents of the country access to the curative benefits of cannabis, but politicians and law enforcement officials speculate that legalization could also put a damper on the drug cartels’ profits. Perhaps, it could even help limit the influence they wield.  

The drug cartels in Mexico have tremendous amounts of political power. If the country does move forward with its plans to legalize marijuana, what impact will it have on the drug war and cartel operations?

What Caused The Drug War In Mexico? 

How and why did the Mexican Drug War start in the first place? Ultimately, it has to do with Mexico’s geographical location and the United State’s insatiable appetite for illicit drugs. Before the 1970s, Mexican drug traffickers were relatively unorganized, mostly transporting cannabis and heroin in small-scale operations.

But, when Pablo Escobar began moving massive amounts of cocaine from South America into the USA, Colombian narcos partnered with Mexican gangs in order to push product into the states through their existing smuggling channels. As a result, Mexican gangs grew into powerful, well-financed cartels, vying for more control over territory and political influence. 

From the ‘30s into the year 2000, Mexico was governed by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which largely ignored the various cartels’ expansion. However, when the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) took control of the country’s executive branch of government in 2000, they made it a priority to crack down on drug smuggling.

In 2006, President Felipe Calderón formally declared war on the drug cartels, mobilizing over 6 thousand Mexican soldiers to conduct raids against the cartel in his home state of Michoacán. Eventually, the Calderón administration moved forces into other parts of the country to engage in similar operations. While this militarization resulted in several high-profile arrests and the seizure of millions of dollars worth of guns and drugs, it also dramatically increased the amount of violence in the country. 

Cannabis Legalization In Mexico 

Mexico’s path to cannabis legalization has been riddled with many hurdles, but the finish line looks like it’s in sight. The country’s transition towards recreational cannabis began in earnest in 2009 under the leadership of president Felipe Calderón. In an effort to free up law enforcement to focus on the recently declared drug war, the Calderón administration made the monumental decision to decriminalize small amounts of cannabis and other harder drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and LSD.

Following decriminalization, the Mexican Supreme Court handed down a series of rulings that determined cannabis prohibition violated the human rights of Mexican citizens. In accordance with Mexican law, when the Supreme Court arrived at this conclusion for the fifth time in 2018, it set a national precedent—essentially legalizing cannabis on paper.

However, it’s up to the country’s legislators to actually pen the law and set up regulations around the burgeoning legal marketplace. Unfortunately, Congress has missed deadline after deadline even with continued pressure from the courts.

Is Cannabis Still Viable In The Drug Trade Scene For Mexico?

The bulk of the cartel’s profits come from smuggling illegal goods into the United States, but cannabis isn’t high on the list. A significant portion of the United States has already implemented robust legal markets, and the majority of the black market buds available in America are home-grown, coming from historic cannabis cultivation regions like the Emerald Triangle.

The cartels have already diversified their smuggling operations. Weapons and fentanyl make up the bulk of trafficking today, and while the cartels probably won’t welcome cannabis legalization with open arms, it likely won’t have much of a tangible effect on their profits.

Future Of Cannabis In Mexico 

It’s unclear what the future will hold for Mexican cannabis legalization efforts. It’s unlikely that the country’s lawmakers would completely ignore the will of the Supreme Court, but what regulative infrastructure they will create for the new legal markets and the timeframe in which they will actually do it remains up in the air. 

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