A man offers marijuana brownie during a demonstration in front of Mexican Senate building in Mexico City on September 14, 2016. (Yuri Cortez, AFP/Getty Images)

Mexico officially legalizes medical marijuana, but don’t expect a swift rollout

President Enrique Peña Nieto, who once was a vocal opponent of drug legalization, has said that addiction should be thought of as a "public health problem," and that users should not be criminalized.

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signed a decree this week legalizing medical marijuana. The measure also classified the psychoactive ingredient in the drug as “therapeutic.”

The new policy isn’t exactly opening the door for medical marijuana dispensaries on every corner.

Instead it calls on the Ministry of Health to draft and implement regulations and public policies regulating “the medicinal use of pharmacological derivatives of cannabis sativa, indica and Americana or marijuana, including tetrahydrocannabinol.” It also tasks the ministry with developing a research program to study the drug’s impact before creating broader policies.

The measure had broad support from Mexico’s Senate and Lower House of Congress, where it passed 347-7 in April.

Marijuana legalization advocates are celebrating the decision, and calling on the government to do more. Sen. Miguel Barbosa said the legislation was “well below the expectations of society.” Sen. Armando Rios Peter called it a “tiny” step away from a failed drug policy.

For decades, Latin America has struggled to address the rampant corruption and violence wrought by the drug trade. Lately, many places have focused on a particular strategy: decriminalization. As my colleague Josh Partlow wrote last year: “Uruguay has fully legalized weed for sale. And a large chunk of South and Central America, including Brazil, Peru, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Costa Rica, have made marijuana more available in varying ways, whether it is for medicinal or recreational use.”

It’s a recognition, he wrote, that “years of violent struggle have failed to stem the flow of narcotics into the United States.”

Even so, conservative Mexico kept its tight drug laws in place. In part, it was because legalization was unpopular. One poll found that about 66 percent of Mexicans oppose decriminalization of marijuana. Also, violence around drug trafficking has had a tremendous impact on the country — experts estimate that 100,000 people have been killed in the last decade because of the cartels.

The Catholic Church also remains staunchly opposed. “A drug is a drug even if it’s sold as a soft medicinal balm. Bad Mexican copycats emulate the neighbor to put on the table of ‘sane democracy’ a bleak, absurd and counterproductive debate,” the church wrote in an editorial. “Recreational marijuana is a placebo to ease the pain of the social destruction in which we irremediably wallow.”

That’s beginning to change though. Recreational marijuana is still broadly prohibited in Mexico, but the government is considering a measure that would let citizens legally possess up to an ounce of it. In 2015, Mexico’s Supreme Court granted four people the right to grow their own marijuana for personal consumption. The ruling set a precedent that could accelerate efforts to pass legislation permitting broader use of pot. “Absolute prohibition is excessive and doesn’t protect the right to health,” Justice Olga Sánchez Cordero said at the time.

Peña Nieto, who once was a vocal opponent of drug legalization, has undergone a similar shift in thinking. He has said that addiction should be thought of as a “public health problem,” and that users should not be criminalized. He’s also advocated for the United States and Mexico to follow similar policies on drug use and marijuana legislation.

“So far, the solutions [to control drugs and crime] implemented by the international community have been frankly insufficient,” Pena Nieto General Assembly Special Sessions in April. “We must move beyond prohibition to effective prevention.”