Updated 3 months ago

Mexican attitudes to marijuana mellow

In November 57% of Californians voted to legalise the growing and use of marijuana for recreational purposes. Americans in seven other states and Washington, DC, are now, or soon expect to be, free to puff away at leisure, but liberalisation in the most populous border state will be felt acutely down south. Mexico has just marked the tenth anniversary of a war on drugs. It has spent millions of dollars on eradicating cannabis. Now it will abut a huge regulated market for the stuff—and one where 30% of the population is Mexican or Mexican-American. Changes in the United States may be prompting a rethink in Mexico, too—among ordinary people, policymakers and purveyors of pot alike.

Start with the citizens. Nearly a third of voters in Mexico currently support legalising marijuana for recreational use. Attitudes are mellowing: in 2008 only 7% approved of legal pot (see chart). Many Mexicans associate the herb with the horrors of the drug war, estimated to have cost more than 80,000 lives. For some this is a reason to crack down harder on it; for others, to take it out of the hands of criminals.

Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto, has proposed decriminalising the possession of 28 grams or less of pot for recreational purposes (the current limit is five grams). On December 13th, in an important step towards detoxifying the drug, the senate voted to legalise medical marijuana. This partial liberalisation is popular: 98 out of 127 senators backed it, with just seven votes against. Newspapers are filled with stories of cannabis’s potential in the treatment of a host of conditions. Even the Catholic Archbishop of Mexico City gave his imprimatur to the bill. The lower house is expected to approve it in early 2017.

Like a pothead’s bedroom, though, the path to full legalisation is strewn with obstacles. Mr Peña’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is torn between pandering to its traditional base and appealing to younger Mexicans who, like their peers elsewhere, are more relaxed about cannabis. The PRI’s poor performance in June’s governors’ elections was partly blamed on Mr Peña’s proposed reforms of marijuana and gay-marriage laws, which may have alienated social conservatives. Since then decriminalisation has been delayed.

Then there is Donald Trump. Possession of marijuana is still illegal under federal law in the United States. The teetotal president-elect’s views are unclear: he has said that pot policy should be left to the states and legalisation “should be studied”, but also that the drug should not be legalised now. His nominee for attorney-general, Jeff Sessions, is an old-fashioned drug warrior, who has railed against Barack Obama’s “lax treatment” of marijuana. He may enforce federal rules more eagerly in California and elsewhere. Or not.

Nothing is likely to reverse the trend towards liberalisation, which reflects a secular shift in American attitudes. But Mr Sessions could slow its progress, and perhaps discourage it south of the border.

Smoking and the bandits
For the time being, the Mexicans perhaps most affected by changes up north belong to the country’s notorious drug gangs. Seizures of marijuana on the United States’ south-western frontier by its Border Patrol, a useful proxy for the activity of Mexican gangs, suggest traffickers are being squeezed by legally grown American crops. In the three years after Colorado became the first American state to legalise recreational pot in 2012, seizures dropped from 1,000 tonnes to 700 tonnes.

Criminals have responded in two ways. They are selling more spliffs to their compatriots, who light up relatively little and so present an alluring growth market. Gangs are also switching to harder drugs. “Drug-trafficking is about managing routes,” observes Antonio Mazzitelli, the regional head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. As demand for illegal marijuana dwindles, Mr Mazzitelli says, traffickers will move to methamphetamine, cocaine or opiates. The fight to control new lines of business may be one reason for the renewed violence in Mexico’s border areas.

Further loosening of American drug laws, to allow regulated sales of hard drugs, too, would hurt illegal suppliers by providing lawful alternatives. Sadly, it is not on the cards. Eventual legalisation in Mexico—starting with marijuana—would in time have a similar effect. But regulation is hard. Tax pot too heavily and the gangs will dominate the bootleg trade, just as they do around one-sixth of Mexico’s tobacco market. Tax it too lightly and many more Mexicans will get stoned.

Politicians are unlikely to race far ahead of public opinion. But California may hint at things to come: 46% of Latinos there voted in favour of legalisation in 2010. This time exit polls put the figure at 57%.