This week Cannabis Wire, an online publication reporting on the cannabis industry, called December “a historic month”; a sentiment echoed by those have pushed for more progressive drug control policies around the world. This historic month, however, cannot be understood without recognizing the decade-long work by Mexican diplomacy and the paradox it represents in terms of Mexico’s own delay in abandoning punitive drug control policies.
The main headline around the world was the decision by the United Nations to reschedule cannabis from Schedule IV (category) that includes deadly drugs, to Schedule I. The move not only recognizes therapeutic uses for cannabis but also opens the door for more scientific research on public health benefits. In the same week, the US House of Representatives voted in favor of the MORE Act [Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act] aimed at removing marijuana from the list of scheduled substances under the Controlled Substances Act and eliminating criminal penalties for those involved with manufacture, distribution, or possession. While analysts consider the MORE Act dead on arrival at the Republican-controlled Senate, the passage on the House is still considered a significant symbolic move that acknowledges the failure of the war on drugs.
While civil society organization have advocated for these welcomed changes at the international level for a long time, the work by Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala helped advance the conversation with other state actors through the United Nations system and the legitimacy it conveys. In 2016, Mexico, Colombia, and Guatemala convened a special session to discuss the world drug problem, formally known as the Special Session of the United Nations on the World Drug Problem UNGASS 2016.
UNGASS 2016 was built on regional efforts where Mexico played a central role. Four years earlier in April of 2012, during the VI Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, heads of state released a communiqué stating “deeply concerned that the activities of transnational organized crime constitute one of the greatest threats to the safety and welfare of our people, since i) it has moved beyond the sphere of drug trafficking to engage in other criminal activity, ii) its financial resources and powers of corruption, as well as its wide access to large quantities of high-power weapons, have increased levels of violence and affected the social fabric of many countries in the Americas”.
These messages were reinforced during the UN’s General Assembly of 2012 where the presidents of Mexico, Colombia, and Guatemala called for multilateral action on drug policy, acknowledging that domestic responses were insufficient, and the blood spilled was from their countries. Global calls for action made in Cartagena and the UN’s General Assembly materialized first at the regional level through a mandate made to the Organization of American States (OAS) of producing a report that did not hide sensitive issues around drug policy and was unafraid of breaking taboos. The report was presented a year later during the OAS General Assembly that took place in Guatemala and was entirely devoted to “[A] Comprehensive Policy against the World Drug Problems in the Americas”.
When Felipe Calderon’s presidency ended in 2012, Mexico’s Foreign Ministry became instrumental for continuing the global call for action made by Mexico and its regional neighbors. More importantly it became the main institutional channel for bringing into the debate civil society actors and created a working group with these stakeholders under the premise that civil society knows the main needs concerning drug policy and the many problems that the international punitive regime had created.
To date, the leadership created by Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala has been lost. Unfortunately for the region, Colombia and Guatemala have returned to openly punitive discourses around drug reform. The momentum, however, has built. In the coming months, the López Obrador administration has the tall order of closing the gap between Mexico’s international discourse and its national policies, and, demonstrate if the country’s leadership calling for progressive drug policies continues with other partners at the global level.
* Cecilia Farfán Méndez is head of Security Research Programs at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). Twitter: @farfan_cc