Smoking marijuana is a basic human right. That extraordinary argument swayed Mexico’s Supreme Court on Wednesday, when it ruled that a federal health law prohibiting cannabis cultivation and personal use violates the constitution — an unprecedented decision that may trigger similar court appeals and pressure the country’s congress to weigh widespread legalization of the drug.
In a landmark interpretation of drug laws widely blamed for violence that has claimed thousands of lives in Mexico, a panel of five judges ruled in favor of a nonprofit marijuana club — the Mexican Society for Responsible and Tolerant Autoconsumption, or SMART — which argued that the health law violates the right to the “free development of one’s personality.” In essence, SMART lawyers successfully claimed that the constitution allows individuals the autonomy to experiment with the effects of cannabis despite the potential dangers the practice entails.
The 4-1 ruling followed an injunction filed by SMART against a 2013 ruling by Mexico’s health regulator that prohibited the organization from cultivating and consuming cannabis for recreational purposes.
“It’s a historic ruling because it centers the drug policy discussion on human rights, because it declares that prohibitions concerning personal use and cultivation are excessive,” said Lisa Sánchez, Latin America program manager for U.K.-based the nonprofit Transform Drug Policy Foundation. “This is a very important step. It not only gives us jurisprudence. It demonstrates an incoherence between the country’s most qualified jurists and congressional legislation. This should have an effect on Congress to reform [drug] policy as soon as possible.”
The decision effectively legalizes recreational marijuana — but only for SMART members. Laws prohibiting the warehousing, sale and distribution of cannabis remain intact. In 2009, Mexico joined a handful of other Latin American countries in decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana and cocaine.
Drug policy experts said the decision will pressure politicians to take a stronger stand on Mexico’s drug trafficking-fueled violence, which has killed some 80,000 people and led to the disappearances of 20,000 more since former President Felipe Calderón launched an offensive against drug syndicates in 2006. Since 2012 Mexican congressmen have introduced five federal measures related to marijuana — from allowing personal cultivation, to decriminalizing its personal use, to legalizing medical use — but none has come to a vote.
The SMART case benefited from growing momentum in Mexico to legalize certain illicit drugs. In October, Arturo Zaldívar, one of the five Supreme Court judges who ruled in SMART’s favor Wednesday, recommended that the high court strike down laws against personal marijuana use. “This high court considers that it [the case] falls in the realm of individual autonomy protected by the right to the free development of one’s personality,” Zaldívar told local media.
In another decision that energized Mexico’s marijuana legalization movement, a judge in September permitted 8-year-old Graciela Elizalde to use medicinal cannabis to treat a Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, a severe form of epilepsy that strikes victims with violent convulsions and can lead to cognitive dysfunction.
Wednesday’s decision follows a report released Tuesday by the Latin American think tank Research Consortium on Drugs and the Law (CEDD) showing a spike in incarceration rates across Latin America for nonviolent drug offenses. The report notes that Mexican federal prisons saw a 1,200 percent increase in incarcerations for drug crimes between 2006 and 2014. And 60 percent of prisoners in correctional centers across nine Mexican states, the study adds, are incarcerated for marijuana-related offenses.
The Mexico Supreme Court decision is to some extent a response to a marijuana law reform movement sweeping through the Americas — from Uruguay’s recent legalization law, to decriminalization efforts in Chile, to the election of new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has vowed to legalize the drug for recreational purposes.
But it is the successful legalization campaigns in the United States that have most reverberated through Mexico. Government officials have openly questioned why they should spend scarce resources — and lose thousands of lives — in U.S.-led drug war efforts in Mexico when several U.S. states including Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon have legalized the drug for recreational use.
“The trend toward legalization is growing in the Americas. This decision by the Supreme Court, in a country as symbolically important to the drug war as Mexico, is a huge move forward,” said Hannah Hetzer, policy manager of the Americas at the Drug Policy Alliance, a drug reform non-profit. “Mexico has been arguing for debate and transparency on the war on drugs internationally but has done less on the home front. This domestic push to mirror its international stance is a really big moment.”