Erick Ponce
Promoting Association for the Mexican Cannabis Industry (GPIC)
Expert Contributor

Cannabis in Mexico: The Long Road to Regulation

By Erick Ponce | Thu, 03/04/2021 - 09:15

For those of us who have been proponents of a regulated and legal cannabis industry, we are living exciting times indeed.

The “wave" of cannabis regulations around the world is a sign of the cultural, social, health, and wellness paradigm shift we are living. This type of change, a wholesome transformation, is long term and the result of years of struggles and activism, as well as the realization of its potential as an industry. When a social norm or judgment is normalized among people, it is consolidated by taking the form of a legislative or regulatory apparatus.

Mexico has officially joined the fray with the publication of its medical cannabis regulations program, which tackles an existing and growing market that has faced legal uncertainty and criminalization.

In this country, the path to regulation began, arguably, just over a decade ago, in 2009, when the possession of small amounts of cannabis and other substances was decriminalized. This decree was a limited measure because it established that the maximum dose could be up to 5 grams for "personal and immediate use," only allows the carrying of the substance and does not include consumption or acquisition. With good reason, this measure was criticized because it continues to criminalize the user.

In late 2014, the case of Graciela Elizalde, a minor who was diagnosed with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, sparked the debate around medical cannabis in the country. Like Charlotte Figi in the US, Graciela suffered from severe seizures and her family obtained permits to use a CBD-rich cannabis oil to treat her epileptic seizures. This milestone opened the door for the first imports of CBD oil to Mexico and prompted a discussion in the legislative bodies to recognize the therapeutic value of cannabis.

And so, in mid-2017, the Mexican government endorsed the medicinal properties of the plant through a reform, or amendment, of the General Health Law and the Federal Penal Code, effectively converting Mexico into a must-watch player in national and international conversations.

This medical approach accommodated the plant's pharmaceutical uses and authorized its commercialization as well as the development of new medicines. The country was on track to becoming one the largest regulated markets for medical cannabis; expectations were high, but they had to be reserved. Only a handful of companies had obtained the first licenses in 2018, when these ceased to be effective the following year: by order of the authorities, the first guidelines that were intended to regulate the new activity had been revoked. The argument was that the new provisions contravened other legal bodies and violated international trade treaties.

However, social change was already unstoppable. Hundreds of Mexican families were not willing to give up cannabis-based treatments, to lose their rights, or to live in uncertainty and legal ambiguity. This impulse led civil societies to promote an injunction that would force health authorities to issue regulations on medical cannabis. In 2019, the Supreme Court issued an order to obey the reform provisions and granted a deadline that ended three years later, in June 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic lengthened the wait, although there was evidence of progress behind the scenes. Other government agencies were being notified of the upcoming issuance of the regulations, including the World Trade Organization. On Jan. 12, 2021, the medical cannabis regulations were officially published, a month after the UN agreed to reclassify cannabis into a more flexible category, validating the therapeutic potential of the plant.

This opened the way to a regulated industry in the country: legalization of activities ranging from production to research, import and export, and of course, medical uses on a federal level. Industrial-scale cultivation will allow supply to the medical market, exports are limited to finished medications, and only licensed pharmaceutical companies can import and sell cannabis. Mexico decided to start with a supply chain that could be located entirely within its territory, without limiting its participation in the international market.

The document is perfectible, but for now it is worth reviewing its advantages. The regulation of all productive activities from seed to sale gives us an advantage over regulatory bodies in places such as Brazil, whose domestic market has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, but only admits the import of processed raw material, having to depend entirely on international suppliers.

It will take a while for the Mexican industry to reach the safety and efficacy standards of Canadian, American, and Colombian products, but it has the advantages of its climatic conditions, its privileged location, and its numerous trade agreements in the region and with Europe.

Although Mexico became the largest medical cannabis market in the world, one of its greatest challenges will be consolidating the offer in a domestic market that is presently flooded with illegal products.

The road has not been smooth; the country must battle the hegemonic positions of medicine and ideas inherited from the prohibitionist paradigm. There is a large group of medical specialists who are unaware and do not recognize the therapeutic applications of cannabinoid medicine. This means it is urgent to include these topics in university curriculums and to change the medical approach that studies cannabis solely because of its potential for abuse. On the other hand, several groups contend that medical cannabis may be a gateway to allow other uses of the plant, and they are not mistaken. The world trend is that regulating medical uses precedes industrial and adult uses of the plant. However, the evidence is overwhelming: regulated markets do not increase consumption, although they guarantee user safety and can prevent problematic use of cannabis.

Photo by:   Erick Ponce