Mexico City - The Mexican government's resistance to legalizing marijuana has taken a hit following a landmark Supreme Court ruling that could pave the way to lifting the nation's ban on pot.
The court's decision on Wednesday authorizes a group of four activists to grow and consume their own marijuana while barring them from selling it, arguing that its their fundamental human right.
But other pot smokers will have to wait a while before they can do the same.
President Enrique Pena Nieto was quick to say following the court decision that it only applied to a small group, and that marijuana remained illegal for the rest of the country.
But even Pena Nieto, who has opposed legalization, acknowledged that a "broad debate" had now begun in Mexico over how to regulate marijuana.
"Our political class has been particularly afraid to move before public opinion," Alejandro Madrazo, a constitutional law expert at the Economic Research and Teaching Center, told AFP.
"But (public) opinion will move, and we will begin to see changes" following the ruling, Madrazo said.- Debate launched -
The four members of the Mexican Society for Responsible and Tolerant Personal Use (the Spanish acronym is SMART), who won the case, say their goal is not to grow pot themselves but rather to force Congress to legalize marijuana.
The group believes that legalizing marijuana will remove a major source of cash from drug cartels and help to reduce violence that has left more than 100,000 people dead or missing since 2006.
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The court's decision has forced the government into a growing debate in the region over the drug war. Uruguay has created a regulated market for pot, while a handful of US states have legalized its recreational use.
While Mexico begins its own debate, the government must first draft new health regulations in order to allow SMART to grow and smoke pot.
Officials have given few details except to say that the rules will seek to protect the public health of children and determine how the group will obtain cannabis seeds - an issue that was not addressed by the court.- Two paths to legalization -
For other Mexicans who want to enjoy the same rights, there are two possible paths: the Supreme Court or Congress.
In Mexico, the Supreme Court has to issue five similar rulings in order to set a legal precedent that changes the law.
The leftist Democratic Revolution Party said that its youth wing was preparing 32 legal petitions to file in courts in the country's 31 states and the capital.
"But the fastest way would be for the legislative branch to modify the laws," Madrazo said, adding that the Congress would not have to go through the complicated task of changing the constitution.
Some lawmakers have introduced marijuana legalization bills in the best, but they have been shelved. The ruling could now revive them.
"There is now a crack in the impassable wall of prohibition," said PRD Senator Mario Delgado.
Another challenge for lawmakers is deciding the kind of regulation that would best serve Mexico.
Alejandro Hope, a security expert and editor at www.eldailypost.com, said a good model would be a state monopoly or cannabis "clubs" like those in Spain, where members pay an annual subscription plus a variable fee to cover the cost of producing the cannabis they consume.
Marijuana "is not dangerous enough to be prohibited, but it's not sufficiently safe to be handed over to marketing geniuses."