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Cannabis companies say legal weed will save Mexico. No one’s sure how

Cannabis advocates in Mexico want to see legalization for recreational use. But not all of them are ready to address the violence and injustice resulting from over a century of prohibition.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — Pyramids of THC-infused popcorn, lollipops, candied apples, little clay jars of spicy tamarind paste, and other psychoactive snacks greeted attendees of Expoweed 2021 in Mexico City over the weekend. Many booths boasted at least one attractive female attendant, many with tops haltered to reveal tattooed skin. With so much sex, drugs and EDM on parade, one almost forgets the plant being celebrated has also been prohibited for a century — a prohibition that has caused countless deaths, disappearances and prison sentences that global prevailing winds now largely deem unjust.

Expoweed aims to “break stigmas” of medicinal, recreational, and industrial marijuana use and “create new paradigms as a society,” according to Zvezda Lauric, chief communications officer of Juicy Fields, the German company sponsoring the event. 

But marijuana remains in legal limbo in Mexico. This past January, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador finally signed off (in Spanish) on a medicinal marijuana bill that was approved by Congress in July 2017. Then in June of this year, the Supreme Court reiterated its ruling (in Spanish) that the prohibition of recreational use is unconstitutional. 

The court first did so in October 2018, but the path to legalization has proven to be circuitous and difficult to navigate. Congress failed to meet three of the judiciary’s deadlines to pass regulatory legislation, forcing it to reissue a 3-year-old ruling. 

Despite this lumbering approach, Lauric said “Mexico is making giant steps toward legalization.” 

Excitement for the future is indeed in the air at Expoweed 2021. So much so, in fact, that few seem to be considering the elephant in the exhibition hall: this industry plans on making moves into an economic space that has been plagued by extreme violence for generations. Many confess outright to wearing blinders with respect to the issue.

“The thing about drug trafficking — I’d rather not discuss the issue using terms like that,” said Mariana Ugarte of the Latin American Cannabis Alliance (Alcann), a Mexican nonprofit promoting a regulated cannabis market.

Alcann hails — possibly overstates — the cannabis industry’s ability to tackle society’s biggest issues, such as violence and poverty. According to Ugarte, however, it understates the role of organized crime in the country’s problem with public security. "The benefits of this industry are much greater than the issue of drug violence, because the violence stems from poverty,” she said.

Mexico’s National Search Commission estimates that 100,000 people have gone missing or forcibly disappeared in the country since it began keeping records in 1964. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) reports that the vast majority of those were disappeared in the 15 years since Mexico declared war on the cartels. A quarter of them went missing between 2018 and 2021. 

"Drug violence is nothing new in Mexico, but now the cannabis industry has come to solve an economic crisis that also generates a lot of violence,” said Ugarte. “Creating opportunities to earn income is going to resolve problems of violence, poverty, and health."

Expo attendees Brian Boyle and Kerry O’Neill have a similar view of the situation. Originally from Canada and California, respectively, they run a sustainability nonprofit in Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato. 

“We want to promote hemp as a savior crop for our region,” said Boyle, admitting to sounding like a preacher. 

O’Neill also speaks in messianic terms. For her, the hemp plant is both a legal and moral right, as well as “the salvation of the planet Earth.” Still, they both would rather avoid the topic of drug violence.

“We’d like to help take the criminal value out of the equation,” said Boyle. “If that makes any sense.”

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It doesn’t to Jorge García-Robles, author of several texts on Mexico’s history with marijuana, including the 2016 Spanish-language book with a title that translates to “Anthology of Vice: Adventures and Misfortunes of Marijuana in Mexico.” He said that without concrete actions to take that variable out of the equation, simply legalizing marijuana won’t ameliorate the systemic violence in the country. 

"Marijuana isn't the drug that's bringing in revenue for the cartels,” he said. “Mexico doesn't really export marijuana to the United States anymore, very little. The best marijuana in the world is from California. The United States no longer needs Mexican weed. It's now the other way around. Many people here are importing marijuana and seeds from the United States."

Still, industry leaders say their product will save the country from this and sundry other crises. Lauric of Juicy Fields said issues of safety and justice for those at the bottom of the pyramid can be addressed by “creating alliances with governments and supporting local producers,” but provided no tangible examples of what said alliances and support might entail. 

The private sector’s burden of responsibility only grows heavier after taking into account who is driving the movement for legalization in Mexico. García-Robles noted the impetus comes from a different sector of society than in countries like the United States, where citizens have primarily led the charge. 

"Here in Mexico, the majority of the population is not in favor of legalization. Public support is a bit more widespread than in previous years, but there's no broad support among Mexican citizens,” he said. "There are economic interests that are probably driving it."

Lauric said she "wouldn't want to use the word pressure. But yes, we've wanted to make the cannabis industry visible so that people know they can get into the business.”

Cannabis Trust Fund is another company that has made itself visible to the federal government. It sells index fund-style shares tied to the cannabis industry at 10,000 pesos ($487) apiece, and promises 3-to-1 returns on investments. To help legislators understand the industrial possibilities of hemp, the company took a sampling of fabrics, wood, plastics, and other hemp-based products to Congress before the medicinal vote in January.

“When the deputies opened the boxes and saw the materials, they couldn’t believe it,” said CEO Jiangsu Wongpec. “They were going to vote on something they had no idea about. We won’t be able to develop the industry if people aren’t properly informed.”

These cannabis industry cheerleaders all believe that the promotion and education of the plant’s potential are enough to solve Mexico’s most pressing problems. But specific actions to accomplish this are hard to come by at Expoweed. The foreign players in the game prefer to sidestep the ethical implications of finding success with a product that has played a role in hundreds of thousands of deaths and disappearances in Mexico over the years.

Zapata Seeds is one company at Expoweed that claims to want to do its part in the transition to legalization with a sense of justice for those most negatively affected by the drug war: poor agricultural workers. Its presence consists of a standup ad with a stylized image of Emiliano Zapata, an often mythologized hero of the Mexican Revolution. A famous saying of his serves as the company’s slogan: “The land will return to those who work it with their hands.”

The company did not respond to questions of how it would fulfill the promise of its lofty slogan and its website remains under construction.

A small citizens movement has been cultivating marijuana plants just outside the Senate building since February 2020. Called Plantón 420 — a wordplay meaning both “sit-in” and “big plant” — its members have campaigned for access to marijuana as a human right for years. On any given day, a few activists society would call stoners can be seen rummaging through their makeshift camp in search of a lighter.

Coordinator Enrique Espinoza said that he and his fellow activists want the government to first grant them what they see as a human right. They’ll worry about the market after that.

“We’re here for the poor, working-class people, not companies like those [at Expoweed],” he said. For him and others who feel failed by the system, justice will have to be more substantial than techie buzzwords and vague promises of opportunity, access and salvation.

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