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HIGHLIGHTS
  1. Initial legalization bill is expected to pass in the coming months, but experts say it is more of a decriminalization measure
  2. Contrary to some reports, Mexico’s Supreme Court has not set a deadline for the government to establish a commercial cannabis production and sales regime
  3. 2021 is the soonest experts expect Mexico’s first legal recreational cannabis stores to be authorized for sales, though some say mid-2020s is more realistic

Rumours of Mexico rushing to legalize recreational cannabis before the end of this year appear to have been greatly exaggerated.

Multiple reports in recent days have referenced an October, 2019, deadline allegedly established by the Mexican Supreme Court for the new government of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to have a regime in place. Not only does no such deadline exist, legal experts say, but the legalization legislation currently before Mexico’s Congress is only the first step in a multi-year process to establish a legal marijuana market.

While the proposed law that is in the process of being considered by legislators is expected to easily pass a final vote within the next two or three months, Mexico City lawyer Jose Alberto Campos Vargas says it is effectively a decriminalization measure. The partner at Sanchez Devanny Law, who has been following Mexico’s cannabis policy closely, said the bill would also lay the bureaucratic groundwork to establish a commercial marijuana industry – but that doesn’t mean tourists can expect to find legal pot shops dotting the beaches of Cancun anytime soon.

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“The first step for self-production and self-consumption and hemp for industrial purposes should be happening in the next few months,” Mr. Campos Vargas said by phone from Mexico City, “but commercially-produced recreational marijuana? That is going to take many many years.”

Home cultivation of cannabis for personal use would become legal within a day of the law passing, he explained, with the draft version setting a limit of 20 plants per household producing no more than 480 grams of dried cannabis per year. The legislation also allows for cannabis cooperatives to be established, but the draft also places limits on the total members each cooperative can have at 150 and restricts each member to receive no more than 480 grams annually, meaning tourists and temporary residents of Mexico would not be able to easily access legal cannabis.

The Mexican Institute of Regulation and Control of Cannabis would also be established if the proposed legislation becomes law in its current form. It would have the power to establish regulations governing commercial production and sale of cannabis that would pave the way for brick-and-mortar stores, but Mario Torres says the new agency would have to start from scratch.

“Where we are in a general sense is in a state of uncertainty really, from a legal perspective as far as what regulations for legalization [of recreational cannabis] in Mexico will look like,” said Mr. Torres, a lawyer based in the Ottawa office of Brazeau Seller Law who handles the firm’s work in Latin America. “At this point, we could still see any model that this current Mexican president can envision [and] you still have to build the bureaucratic apparatus to execute on these things.”

Guillermo Cruz Rico is far more optimistic on the timing for Mexican legalization. The Toronto-based Mexican-Canadian lawyer, who practices law in both countries, says the government is on track to establish a regime that will allow recreational cannabis retail stores to open by 2021.

“From the legal perspective I believe everything is ready to go ahead, but from the political perspective, people in Mexico are still waiting for the right time,” said Mr. Cruz Rico. “The government of Mexico has shown that it is a priority for the administration, they could set everything up in about six months, so for that reason I believe by 2021 we would be able to have a market in Mexico similar to what you see in Canada today.”

Part of the problem with that optimistic vision, Mr. Torres and Mr. Campos Vargas say, is the government is facing virtually no political, social or cultural pressure to push forward quickly with cannabis legalization. There are also thousands of people incarcerated for minor cannabis possession-related crimes in Mexico, Mr. Campos Vargas said, noting figuring out what to do with all of them “is a bit of the reason why this is happening a little bit slower than planned.”

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“Large parts of the population also do not want recreational legalization, they can get their heads around medical use cannabis but I would suggest the inference that the majority of the Mexican population is pro-recreational cannabis, I do not think that is correct,” Mr. Torres said. “There are some serious cultural hurdles to jump over in Latin America as far as the recreational use of cannabis is concerned.”

In the meantime, Mexico appears to be favouring a step-by-step approach to full-blown recreational cannabis legalization.

“The next step will be most likely the legalization of hemp without the THC component but having the actual stores selling cannabis with THC for recreational purposes, that is ages away, many years,” Mr. Campos Vargas said. “That would be very unlikely to happen in the next five to seven years.”

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