Enrique Peña Nieto on Tuesday became the first sitting president of Mexico to propose a partial regulation of marijuana use— a move that could begin to break a decades-long drug war policy of criminalization and prohibition.

In a pivot from current policies, Peña Nieto suggested that his administration will push to legalize weed for medical and scientific purposes. He did not say anything about recreational use of marijuana.


“With firmness, we must continue doing what has worked. With flexibility, we must change that which hasn’t given results,” Peña Nieto said in an unprecedented message delivered to the United Nations’ special session on global drug policy (UNGASS 2016).

Peña Nieto’s bold message came as a surprise to many, especially considering that he almost didn't attend the General Assembly meeting, which was proposed by Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala a few years back. His sudden call for partial regulation was met with applause because Peña Nieto — who last year said he personally did not believe in the legalization of marijuana consumption — becomes the first acting president to call for such a shift in policy.

Former presidents Ernesto Zedillo, Vicente Fox and —to a lesser extent—Felipe Calderon, who launched a frontal war against cartels in 2006, have all voiced support for some type of drug-policy reform in Mexico. But they all waited until they were out of office to do so.

Peña Nieto is the first to do so from the presidency.

Since President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs in 1971, Mexico has more or less fallen in line, often influenced and pressured by the U.S. In 1969, Nixon basically strong-armed the Mexican government by launching “Operation Intercept,” a massive crackdown on marijuana smugglers that nearly shut down the entire southern border.


For decades since, Mexicans have felt like they’ve been bullied into fighting an unwinnable war whose enemies are being financed by U.S. drug consumption.

Peña Nieto channeled some of that frustration on Tuesday.

“My country is one of the nations that have paid a high price, an excessive price, in terms of peace, suffering, human lives—the lives of children, young people, women and adults,” he said.

Soldiers escort a 14-year-old known as "El Ponchis," suspected of working as a hitman for a drug cartel in the city of Cuernavaca, Mexico. Friday Dec. 3, 2010. (AP Photo/Antonio Sierra)

The Mexican president made no mention of the criticism towards his government’s continuation of a militarized approach, Chapo Guzmán’s 2015 prison escape, the Ayotzinapa killings or the thousands of unsolved disappearances related to the drug war. Instead, he focused his speech on shifting marijuana policy in the near future.

The president said his administration will present “specific actions” in the next days. However, it remains to be seen if Congress will play along.

“We will transit from mere prohibition, towards effective prevention and regulation. Thousands of lives depend on it.”

Drug policy advocates welcomed Peña Nieto's remarks.

“He alluded to responsible regulation and that was unprecedented. A huge step. He didn’t elaborate much, and it can be open to interpretation. But if he indeed proposed regulation of controlled substances, that would be one of the most daring things ever said at the United Nations,” Hannah Hetzer, spokesperson for the Drug Policy Alliance think tank in New York, told Fusion.


Hetzer said the president’s about-face on weed was unexpected given that inside the United Nations more progressive stances on drug policy usually come at a political cost. She said the president's new position on medical marijuana is “a very good first step,” bearing in mind “this all came from a president who hasn’t necessarily been the beacon of change for drug law.”

But others think the president's call for reform doesn't go far enough, especially if he's unwilling to completely legalize the sale of marijuana.

A protester blows marijuana smoke in the face of a police officer in Mexico City. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini)

“Instead of authorizing and regulating access to cannabis, he’s asking to increase the quantity people can possess without being sanctioned. Without legal means to obtain the plant, consumers will still be pushed towards an illicit substance black market,” said Andres Aguinaco, an attorney who helped take an unprecedented recreational marijuana case to the Mexican Supreme Court last November.


The case sparked a nationwide debate on weed and could open the door for widespread legalization of recreational use.

Aguinaco called Peña Nieto’s 10-point proposal focusing on classifying drugs as a public health issue both “encouraging and alarming.” He said the president may be trying to “advance while leaving the handbrake on.”

Regulating marijuana, and even legalizing recreational use, will not eradicate Mexico’s brutal drug cartels. The cartels have consistently proven to be savvy corporations that adapt quickly and efficiently to ever-changing market realities. That's why they have increasingly tapped into human smuggling, oil theft, extortion and kidnapping, to name a few.

Mexican police stand next to installations used to illegally tap fuel from pipelines belonging to Mexico's state oil company PEMEX. (AP Photo)

A push from Peña Nieto to regulate weed would however signal a symbolic and institutional shift in the war on drugs for a country that has suffered too much at the expense of a global prohibitionist regime.


Judging from his speech at the United Nations, it appears the Mexican president could use the "gateway drug" as a gateway of his own towards a new path to more effective and humane drug-control policies.