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Young people consumed marijuana and demonstrated at the Monumento a la Revolución in Mexico City on the occasion of Weed Day, April 20, 2021. ©  2021 Gerardo Vieyra/NurPhoto via AP.

(Washington, DC) – Mexico’s Congress should amend the proposed Federal Law for the Regulation of Cannabis to fully decriminalize simple marijuana possession, Human Rights Watch said today. Congress should pass the amended bill before the end of this congressional session on April 30, 2021. Passage of the bill would be a major step forward for human rights in Mexico.

On March 10, the House of Deputies passed the bill, which in its current version would partially legalize and regulate the production, distribution, and possession of marijuana for personal use, and sent it to the Senate for final approval. On April 8, Senate Majority Leader Ricardo Monreal announced that he intended to postpone its debate until September, after the mid-term elections, to make unspecified changes to the bill.

“The prohibition of marijuana has had devastating costs for human rights in Mexico, leaving thousands of people needlessly imprisoned simply for possessing marijuana and exposing countless others to serious abuses at the hands of police,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Legalizing marijuana would be an enormous step forward for human rights and Congress should stop postponing this urgent reform.”

Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that prohibiting recreational marijuana use was unconstitutional and ordered Congress to pass a reform legalizing recreational use within 90 days. Since then, however, the congressional leadership has repeatedly postponed voting on marijuana reform and has received multiple deadline extensions from the court. The current deadline is April 30. Senator Monreal said he intends to request an extension until the end of 2021.

The current bill would allow anyone over the age of 18 to consume marijuana, possess up to 28g of marijuana, or apply for a license to grow up to six plants at home for their own personal use or a license to form a “cannabis association” with up to 20 members who grow and share marijuana for their personal use. It would also allow companies or individuals to apply for a license to grow, process, or sell marijuana for commercial purposes.

However, the bill includes some unnecessary provisions that could expose people to abuse, even under the new system, Human Rights Watch said. Under the bill, simple possession of more than 28g of marijuana – that is, possession for personal use, not distribution – would remain a criminal offense, and anyone in possession of more than 28g of marijuana, even for personal use, could face a fine of up to US$22,000 or up three years in jail, depending on the amount of marijuana they are holding.

If police suspect that someone has more than 28g of marijuana, they can detain the person for up to 48 hours and turn them over to public prosecutors. Also, to obtain a license to grow marijuana at home or form a “cannabis association,” users must agree to allow government officials to enter and inspect their homes to verify that they are complying with the terms of the license. 

Mexican police frequently torture, abuse, and extort people they stop and detain, regardless of whether they have committed a crime. In the most recent survey of detained people conducted by Mexico’s statistical agency, the National Institute for Statistics and Geography (INEGI), in 2016, nearly two thirds had been beaten or hit during arrest, more than a third were choked or waterboarded, and a fifth were given electric shocks. 

Criminalizing the consumption and possession of drugs for personal use infringes on principles of autonomy that underlie all rights and is per se a disproportionate response to private conduct, Human Rights Watch said. Congress should amend the bill so that it completely eliminates the crime of simple possession of marijuana from Mexican law to reduce the risk that users will face abuses at the hands of police. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador should ensure that inspection provisions are enforced in a way that does not lead to unnecessary or disproportionate punishment or facilitate further rights violations.

As of 2019, more than 24,000 people were in prison for drug crimes in Mexico – about 12 percent of the prison population, according to the INEGI. About 40 percent of them had been charged with or convicted of simple drug possession. Detainees in Mexican prisons regularly face violence, overcrowding, lack of access to basic services, lack of medical attention, and abuses by prison staff.

The bill includes a provision that would allow state and federal prison officials to release anyone who has been charged with or convicted of an offense that was decriminalized by the reform. Once the bill comes into effect, the authorities should promptly identify all those eligible and release them immediately and automatically, without requiring detainees or their families to formally apply for release, Human Rights Watch said.

The proposed licensing system for the legal production, processing, distribution, and sale of marijuana would create new economic opportunities. President López Obrador should ensure that the provisions are carried out in an inclusive manner that allows economically marginalized populations, including rural communities in areas where marijuana has been traditionally cultivated, to fully participate in and benefit from the regulated system, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch has previously called on governments around the world to reassess their drug policies, due to the high human rights costs of the global “war on drugs.” In Mexico, the drug war has enhanced the profitability of illicit drugs, fueling the growth of violent organized crime and widespread corruption, interfering with the rule of law and leading to large-scale human rights abuses. The legalization of marijuana would not, on its own, address these problems, but it represents a first crucial step toward adopting alternative approaches to drug policy, Human Rights Watch said.

“Drug policies that emphasize criminalization have led to countless human rights abuses and widespread corruption in Mexico,” Vivanco said. “This bill should serve as an important first step toward re-evaluating Mexico’s approach to drug policy more broadly.”

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