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Mexico's Cannabis Growers Are Going Rogue

Mexico's Cannabis Growers Are Going Rogue

Farmers are cultivating and selling cannabis as Mexico’s government continues to bungle cannabis legalization.

Nathanial Janowitz, Vice Magazine

22/08/06, 06:30

TETECALA, Mexico — Rosa Quiroga’s small family farm in the central Mexican state of Morelos no longer smells like tomatoes. While she and her family still grow some vegetables, the 78-year-old’s primary focus now is signaled by the aroma of her newest crops: marijuana strains, like Blue Dream, White Widow, and Gorilla Glue.

“I never thought we’d be planting crops like the ones we have now,” Quiroga chuckled, standing a few feet from her burgeoning weed plants. She recalled how her mom always kept a couple cannabis plants for infusing into an alcohol that helped her with various health problems, “but she told us not to mention the plants.”

“At that time, it was not very common to talk about cannabis,” she said.

For generations, cannabis farmers in Mexico hid their plants from authorities, working in a clandestine market outlawed by the government. But as Mexican legalization continues to sit in a strange bureaucratic purgatory that few understand, many around the country have decided to take matters into their own hands.

Now, Quiroga’s plants aren’t hidden. She informed both the local and federal governments about her plants in an open defiance of lawmakers who have repeatedly failed to pass a cannabis legalization law, even though they were mandated to do so by Mexico’s Supreme Court in 2018.

In Tetecala, Quiroga wasn’t alone. Six other families she’d known since childhood joined her in 2021 to begin producing cannabis with the goal of creating medicinal oils and creams. They’re also interested in many other avenues outside of the medicinal sphere, especially edibles. The group are not traditional cannabis-growing families but rather local farmers, called campesinos in Spanish, who want the government to “provide us with this opportunity,” she said. “We’re asking that they make it legal to plant whatever we want on our land.”

But not everyone in Tetecala was happy about the growing innovation and cultivation around cannabis. Mexico remains a relatively conservative country, where marijuana has long been stigmatized. Even members of her own family stopped talking to her, Quiroga said, “because they told me that [Tetecala] was going to be a drug-addict town, a marijuana town.”

But her daughter has embraced the movement. “She has a lot of enthusiasm to do things, she’s learning how to make everything, particularly the gummies,” said Quiroga.

The farmers, together with a cannabis advocacy group called the Morelense Cannabis Route, drafted and signed the Plan Tetecala on Nov. 28, 2021, declaring their intention to grow, cultivate, and sell cannabis in various forms, and formally presented it to the government. When they didn’t receive a response, they went ahead anyway, and began attempting to spread the plan around the country.

Andres Saavedra, a lawyer and one of the founders of Plan Tetecala, called it “a historical social document” that aims to generate “an expectation of balanced and equitable means of production” and “the liberation of oppressed people in regards to cultivation.”

“It is oppressive not to allow the people who are on the land to decide what they can or cannot cultivate,” Saavedra told VICE World News.

Saavedra noted it wasn’t a coincidence that the Plan Tetecala was signed a day after the 110th anniversary of famed revolutionary Emiliano Zapata’s Plan Ayala in 1911—named after the Morelos town where Zapata was born—and is widely recognized as a fundamental land reform initiative that greatly influenced modern Mexico.

The idea for the plan took hold as the Mexican government bungled legalization after the 2018 mandate from the Supreme Court. In the years following, the bill was repeatedly bounced between the congress and the senate, with each revision seemingly reducing and removing more and more of the articles that addressed equitable business opportunities for rural landowners and affirmative action for communities affected by years of cannabis prohibition. That’s exactly what many activists feared would happen, likely leading to the exclusion of small, humble farmers in favor of the agricultural industry.

Saavedra and other activists observed the process closely as most of the participants in the conversation came from industry, science, and politics—a process from which they said they were mostly excluded.

“It is absurd that they are talking about a land issue and that the last ones to participate are those who work the land and have the land,” he said.

But even the watered-down version of the law failed to create consensus. Lawmakers missed various deadlines, first asking for an extension in December 2020, then just altogether ignoring a final deadline in April of last year.

As a result, the Supreme Court essentially went over the elected officials’ heads in July 2021, and for only the second time in Mexican history dictated a general declaration of unconstitutionality and changed the country’s cannabis law. Basically, they deleted the words “medicinal” and “scientific” from a general health law that allowed people to apply for permits to grow, carry, and sell cannabis. Therefore, anyone can now apply for a permit for personal use, not just for medicinal and scientific use of cannabis.

But while that opened the door for people to go through a bureaucratic process to legally cultivate certain amounts of cannabis, it's far from the federal legalization law that Mexico intended to pass, similar to countries like Canada and Uruguay—a bill that promises to create the biggest federal weed market in the world.

Back in Tetecala, farmers began cultivating cannabis in various municipalities in Morelos a few months after the Supreme Court mandate, and have been expanding cannabis production into two other states. They also have signees of the plan in at least 20 of Mexico’s 32 states who are interested in beginning to cultivate soon.

Through the entire process, they’ve kept authorities in the loop about what they’re doing, submitting 90 petitions to various levels of government around the country informing them of their activities.

“What we tell the government is that we are already cultivating, we are already transforming, we are already distributing… We are informing them of how this is advancing,” said Saavedra. They’re not asking for permission, he insisted.

But Saavedra pushed back on the idea that what they are doing is illegal.

“Really, the word ‘illegal’—I would eradicate it and change it to ‘A-legal,’” he said. “Because if you say illegal, it means that you are breaking the law. Here it is A-legal, because there is no law. So we are in a vacuum, in a legal limbo.”

While the Supreme Court mandate made it quasi-legal to get involved in certain aspects of cannabis through an application process to the minister of health, it also had the unintended effect of essentially freezing the general legalization law. With the Supreme Court off their backs, the law was pushed onto the back burner and was hardly mentioned during the most recent fall and spring legislative sessions.

That confusion over legalities is one of the central tenants, where the signees of the Plan Tetecala receive legal help, which is “the real difference with the plan; that accessibility for community members, ejidatarios, indigenous people, women, vulnerable sectors [of society] is completely open and free. So, by having that vision of gratuity, you are creating balance and it is possible for anyone to participate in the industry,” said Saavedra.

Although the Plan Tetecala is still in its infancy, its members organized the inaugural Entrepreneurial Cannabis Fair in the Morelos state capital of Cuernavaca on May 28. There were a series of lectures, a workshop that teaches how to make cannabis oils, and even a Cannabis business shark tank where entrepreneurs pitched their ideas to a group of leaders in the field and asked for support. The event’s participants were eclectic; hipsters chatted with elderly farmers in front of booths selling edibles, CBD, and a wide variety of cannabis products. The group is now planning similar events in other states around the country.

Amanda Burgos arrived at the fair tired after traveling from northern Mexico. But she had a broad smile on her face the entire day. She, along with Rosa Quiroga, were the guests of honor, presenting their first batches of oils and creams, alongside smokable nuggets of marijuana.

Burgos was one of the first to sign the Tetecala Plan in her hometown of Alamos in the border state of Sonora, where she and seven others are now openly producing cannabis. The Sonora faction of Plan Tetecala even planted several cannabis plants in front of the government palace in the state capital of Hermosillo in April as a symbolic protest in favor of legalization.

She said that she was “proud” of her products on sale at the fair because they’re “from an organic plant, without any pesticides. I am sure of what I am promoting, because I know that I am selling the best-quality stuff.”

She’s producing a product that can help her family survive. In Sonora, like Morelos, and almost every state in Mexico, there “is a lot of need.”

“There are no jobs, people struggle to work,” said Burgos. “There are no good salaries, there aren't, so we have to help ourselves.”

Plan Tetecala is one of many micro movements that are breaking out across Mexico.

“The absence of regulation has meant that more communities are taking matters into their own hands,” said Zara Snapp, co-founder of the Mexican research and advocacy organization Instituto RIA. “Communities and people are saying, ‘We're going ahead, legal or not; we're just going to move forward.’”

Snapp mentioned a recent decree by the local government in Oaxaca City in April that made it legal to consume marijuanaanywhere in the municipality where tobacco smoking is allowed. She said that these kinds of steps by the city of Oaxaca and the growing Tetecala Plan movement are “paving a path. It's interesting because we are not seeing a lot of movement on the federal level. We're seeing a lot of discourse and a lot of rhetoric, but we're seeing very little action and collective political will.”

While the micro movements are inspiring, Snapp still hopes that the general law that seemed so close to passing a couple years ago will still go ahead.

“[Legalization in Mexico] has been a roller-coaster and I'm hoping we can get some sort of resolution eventually.”

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