Tijuana is a tale of two cities in itself. While one, recently named the most violent city in the world by Mexico's Citizens' Council for Public Safety and Criminal Justice, is still very much grappling with the fallout from the 2000s drug war, the other simply wants to enjoy a peaceful, trendy new way of life.
For the younger generation and those responsible for the growing number of hipster businesses propelling Tijuana into the future, legal cannabis presents exciting cultural and monetary opportunities into the city.
“Legal weed here is going to happen, but probably not for another year,” said Pedro Gastelum, the 20-something co-founder of Tijuana High Club, the city's first head shop aimed at savvy cannabis users. Gastelum is young, articulate, and possesses an entrepreneurial spirit that falls somewhere between the hip Los Angeles streetwear aesthetic and Tijuana's street smarts. “It's going to start in Mexico City, and then it's coming to all of Baja California, not just Tijuana,” he said. We're just trying to stay one step ahead.”
Baby Steps to Legal Weed
The Mexican government has been inching toward legalizing recreational cannabis since the Supreme Court made its first ruling on the matter in 2015 when it allowed a group of people to grow cannabis for personal use. Marijuana legalization took another step forward in October 2018, when the Mexico Supreme Court ruled that a ban on recreational marijuana was unconstitutional.
Marijuana eradication by the Mexican government is also at an all time low. According to a 2018 study, only 1,160 hectares (2,866 acres) were seized by June 2018, and 4,220 hectares (10,428 acres) in 2017, compared with more than 30,000 hectares (74,132 acres) in 2016. The study goes on to point out that seizures in Mexico have all but collapsed, and seizures on the U.S. border have declined by two-thirds.
Reuters reported in October 2018, before President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office, that officials in the incoming government of President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador “indicated they could take steps to legalize marijuana quickly as part of a broader strategy to fight poverty and crime.” In March 2019, Mexican lawmakers met to begin the process of decriminalizing marijuana use.
“In the last 10 years in Mexico, there's a record of more than 240,000 dead and more than 40,000 missing,” said Gilberto Herrera Solorzano, a Federal Delegate of the Méxican Government in Tijuana. “The narco war and prohibitionist politics have proven to be a complete failure. Consumption did not decrease, but crime and violence increased.”
With the arrival of López Obrador comes a novel approach to drug policy: if it's natural, legalize it.
“From the Senate of the Republic the now Secretary of the Interior, Ms. Olga Sánchez Cordero presented the initiative to regularize marijuana for recreational, medical and commercial purposes,” Solorzano said. “Now, what follows is to follow up on the parliamentary agenda to put it into discussion and the congress make a quick decision.”
While it's only a matter of time until weed becomes legal, many of Tijuana's residents are already smoking it. Medical marijuana use has been legal in Mexico since 2017, a legal breakthrough which was preceded by a Supreme Court ruling in favor of Graciela Elizalde, Mexico's first legal cannabis patient. Permits for using cannabis medicinally are difficult to obtain, and are overall quite uncommon.
“Almost all our customers buy their weed in San Diego,” said Gastelum, showing me around the Tijuana High Club (THC for short, get it?) showroom. “I've lived in a lot of cities in Mexico, and it's Tijuana where I always find the sickest weed. In two hours you can get Jungle Boyz, Cookies, any of the big brands straight from the dispensary. People just bring it over the border. I'm always smoking American weed.”
A recent article quoted a consultant at Southwest Patient Group, the closest dispensary to the San Diego-Tijuana border, who claimed that the 200 or so customers per day Southwest Patient Group sees, roughly 15 to 20 of them are from Mexico.
In terms of where Mexico's citizens fall on the issue, there's little data available aside from a March 2019 Twitter poll by the nation's secretary of Security and Citizen Protection, who is responsible for overseeing the federal police, all intelligence agencies, and Mexico's prison system.
While the poll is imperfect, as citizens with active Twitter accounts would most likely comprise the younger, more progressive leaning section of the Mexico population, the results were overwhelmingly in favor of legalization; 81% of respondents said cannabis should be legal, with only 19% believing that it should remain illegal.
Federal Delegate Solorzano explained, “I think that in these times, and specifically the circumstances Tijuana finds itself in, there is more openness to the discussion of these issues. The criminalization of consumers has been gradually demystified, and while there are still very conservative sectors in Mexican society, education is key. With good educational policies and the correct communication strategies we can combat misinformation by showing the benefits of legalization.”
THC is Ahead of the Curve
Tijuana High Club clean aesthetic and education-based approach feels like the right first step in Tijuana's marijuana legalization. Standing inside, surrounded by all the essentials a modern-day pothead could ask for, you could be at any trendy head shop in Los Angeles, with Puffco Peaks, Raw papers and paraphernalia, and cases of beautiful, heady pipes, bubblers, dab rigs, and bongs all on display. The most interesting pieces play on Mexican culture, depicting cartoonish cacti, chihuahuas and flowers.
“This guy,” Pedro Gastelum motioned towards the chihuahua bubbler, “His family has been doing this like, 20 years. Nobody here is doing this kind of work. Even people from San Diego are buying his work.
“Before my store, you pretty much would have to cross to San Diego if you want high-quality glass. Here, the only shop that used to be open were focused on metal stuff, and it was mixed with a tattoo shop. Nothing here is focused on weed. The guys who buy for those kinds of stores, they don't even smoke, so they don't know the customer or what they would even want.”
Now in its third month of business, THC has begun filling the void felt by Tijuana's cannabis community. “We get an average of about 20 customers a day,” Gastelum said. “They range in age from about 18 to 40, with a few visits from older people looking for CBD products for medical reasons.” Not even cannabidiol (CBD) is legal for sale in Mexico due to its relation to marijuana.
“This place makes it easy for everyone who needs specific stuff to smoke with,” said Sergio Gasca, a local DJ browsing for glass pieces. “Here in Tijuana, everything is all dispersed. One store might sell rolling papers, one might sell pipes, but no store sold everything. So, this place is great. It's everything you're looking for in one place, and the quality is so much higher.”
While it's clear the younger, hipper side of Tijuana is ready to bank and toke on the opportunities presented by legal weed, the older, more conservative generation is beginning to warm up to the idea as well.
As for the older generations, there's increasing interest every week, Gastelum said. “Most of the time, it's a young customer bringing in their parents. They end up taking one of the fliers about CBD, or talking to us about the misinformation surrounding marijuana and its benefits.”
Legalization Deadline Looms
While the outlook for legalization is bright, the deadline is fast approaching. The Mexican Congress has until October 2019 to legalize, meaning each of the four parliamentary commissions — Justice, Health, Public Safety, and Second of Legislative Studies — would turn all the bills into one law. With less than two months to go, legislators are scrambling.
In a recent article, José Trinidad, director of public affairs of Canncura Pharma, a research-focused Mexican medical cannabis firm, told Marijuana Business Daily, “If the parliament doesn't legalize by October, the Supreme Court could legislate in its place.” He continued, “There's currently some tension between the Supreme Court and the executive power. Because the parliament and the executive power are generally aligned, legislation is likely to be in place by October to avoid the Supreme Court doing it.”
With majorities in Congress to get the bill approved, it seems that in the next year weed is going to be legal in Mexico. However, for the third and largest country to do so, it's still going to take time. Even if laws are in place by October 2019, the agency to oversee the industry has yet to even be created, and much less funded. Business opportunities in the cannabis space are still a ways away.
That is, unless you're Tijuana High Club. “We feel very proud of being pioneers in this city and be part of the cannabis movement at this side of the border,” Gastelum said. “Sure, it's a radical business for the moment, but a necessary one for the needs of rapidly growing Tijuana and the future of the cannabis industry in Mexico.”
Feature image: Tijuana High Club, or THC for short, is the first stoner-savvy head shop in the major Mexican border city. Its owners are bullish on the future of Mexico legalizing adult-use cannabis nationwide. (Photo by Lindsay MaHarry)