What New York can learn from Mexico about marijuana legalization

Legalization advocates should make the affirmative case for legal access to marijuana and how that will enhance the lives of New Yorkers.
Legalization advocates should make the affirmative case for legal access to marijuana and how that will enhance the lives of New Yorkers.
Aleksandra Belinskaya/Shutterstock
Legalization advocates should make the affirmative case for legal access to marijuana and how that will enhance the lives of New Yorkers.

What New York can learn from Mexico about marijuana legalization

The affirmative case for the freedom to experiment with a relatively benign drug.
May 20, 2019

Proponents of recreational marijuana legalization in New York state were dismayed when the measure was dropped from the state budget agreement in late March. And they verged on apoplectic when Gov. Andrew Cuomo said earlier this month that it lacks the votes to pass this year. However, the legalization fight showed signs of life last week when legislators in Albany announced a new bill to legalize recreational marijuana. But state Sen. Liz Krueger, who is sponsoring the legislation, said it currently doesn’t have majority support in the upper chamber.

The issue has been bogged down in squabbles over technical questions like how the money raised from taxing marijuana sales would be spent and what to do about rural and suburban counties that want to opt out of having dispensaries. Even the arguments for legalization have leaned heavily toward a defensive and technocratic case – that arresting pot smokers does more harm than good, and that neighboring states will legalize pot, so New York might as well get its fair share of the revenue. This has led to the pro-legalization movement being weakened by the defeat of legalization in New Jersey.

Instead, legalization advocates should make an affirmative case for how permitting marijuana sales will enhance the lives of New Yorkers. Refocusing on the “why” could propel the debate forward by breaking our myopic focus on the public policy particulars. The argument for legalization is about much more than raising government revenue. It’s about the freedom to alter your consciousness, seek new experiences and live life on your own terms.

New York could learn a lot from the history of recreational marijuana legalization in Mexico.

The Mexican Senate is currently fine-tuning a recreational marijuana legalization bill, but the impetus didn’t originate with the legislature: They were pushed into doing it by the Supreme Court of Mexico.

In 2018, the Mexican Supreme Court court ruled that blanket bans on recreational cannabis violated Mexicans’ constitutional right to “free development of personality.” Now, it would be up to the legislators to decide how, not if, they wanted to regulate recreational marijuana.

The phrase “free development of personality” immediately caught the interest of the U.S. media. The language sounded unfamiliar, maybe even radical. But the underlying idea is a robust conception of personal freedom, an argument with deep roots in the liberal tradition. It’s a discourse that every American is familiar with. It’s an ideal that New Yorkers may find instructive and inspirational.

The Mexican Constitution guarantees the right to free development of personality, which means essentially the right to choose one’s way of life, including vital and intimate questions like whether to get married, have children or change one’s gender.

The Mexican Supreme Court ruled in an earlier case that the right to develop one’s personality also includes the right to engage in the recreational activities of one’s choice, including taking mind-altering substances to relieve tension, intensify perceptions, or achieve new personal or spiritual experiences. This is a frank acknowledgement from the country’s highest judicial authority that recreational drug use – or, at least, the freedom to choose it – can be a genuinely good thing.

By contrast, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Congress can even ban marijuana grown and consumed at home because it (somehow) affects interstate commerce, even when no money changes hands.

The Mexican ruling doesn’t mean that cannabis can’t be regulated, or that the court believes the drug to be inherently harmless. It just means that the state must regulate cannabis in ways that are suitable, proportional and necessary to protect public health and preserve public order, instead of imposing a blanket ban that violates a person’s right to live freely.

The court was clear that its ruling applied only to cannabis, but the same logic could be a basis for legalizing of other drugs. Indeed, Interior Minister Olga Sánchez Cordero, a strong proponent of marijuana legalization, is already talking up Mexico’s rich ritual history with peyote and psychedelic mushrooms on national television.

The right to choose to use recreational drugs as part of the free development of personality implies a more positive view of drug use than most Americans have typically embraced. Here, even legalization advocates are more likely to talk about harm reduction than about the potential benefits of legal marijuana.

As compelling as harm reduction arguments are, legalization advocates are selling ourselves short if we shy away from a robust defense of the potential benefits of the freedom to use marijuana.

Given the safety profile of cannabis compared to other legal recreational drugs, prohibition seems like an arbitrary restriction on personal freedom. Marijuana is safer than tobacco or alcohol, the two big regulated recreational drugs in this country. Six people die every day of acute alcohol poisoning, but nobody has ever fatally overdosed on marijuana alone. We know for sure that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer, but it’s an open question whether smoking marijuana does.

The benefits of recreational marijuana use are difficult to quantify scientifically, but easy to observe in living rooms nationwide. Many people find that marijuana use enhances sociability, empathy and creativity. It can promote relaxation, produce insights into one’s own personality and intimate relationships, and inspire new ideas for everything from a stand-up comedy routine to a political magazine article. What would jazz, rock and roll, hip-hop or the past 50 years of American cinema and painting have lost without marijuana?

Like all drugs, cannabis affects people differently. Some people find the drug unpleasant, and it may pose special risks for people with certain medical conditions. Indeed, the effects are variable enough that it’s better to let adults decide for themselves what place, if any, the drug should have in their lives.

As New Yorkers, we don’t have a constitutional guarantee to fall back on, but the ideal of free development of personality is applicable to the struggle for legalization. Just because the U.S. Constitution doesn’t guarantee this particular form of liberty doesn’t mean it has no inherent value.

As the great astronomer and humanist Carl Sagan wrote in 1969, “The illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.”

And if that’s not enough reason for New York to legalize recreational marijuana, there’s always the thrill of preempting New Jersey.

Lindsay Beyerstein
is an investigative journalist, podcaster and documentary filmmaker in Brooklyn.
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