By Elisabeth Malkin and Azam Ahmed

New York Times

The Mexican Supreme Court opened the door to legalizing marijuana on Wednesday, delivering a pointed challenge to the nation’s strict substance abuse laws and adding its weight to the growing debate in Latin America over the costs and consequences of the war against drugs.

The vote by the court’s criminal chamber declared that individuals should have the right to grow and distribute marijuana for their personal use. While the ruling does not strike down current drug laws, it lays the groundwork for a wave of legal actions that could ultimately rewrite them, proponents of legalization say.

For legal marijuana to become the law of the land, the justices in the court’s criminal chamber will have to rule the same way five times, or eight of the 11 members of the full court will have to vote in favor.

The decision reflects a changing dynamic in Mexico, where for decades the US-backed war on drugs has produced much upheaval but few lasting victories. Today, the flow of drugs to the United States continues, along with the political corruption it fuels in Mexico. The country, dispirited by the ceaseless fight with traffickers, remains engulfed in violence.

“It’s the drama behind all of our efforts,” said Juan Francisco Torres Landa, a corporate lawyer who was one of the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case.

With little to show after years of tough-on-crime policies, countries in the Western Hemisphere have enacted laws allowing some marijuana use.

Uruguay, Chile, and more than 20 states in the United States have passed laws allowing medical or recreational use.

The rate of marijuana use in Mexico is low, and most Mexicans oppose legalization. The United States is the main market for marijuana grown there.

The trade is controlled by violent criminal gangs who also make money from other drugs, kidnapping and extortion. Crime analysts say legalizing marijuana would do little to diminish their power.

The marijuana case has ignited a debate about the effectiveness of imprisoning drug users, in a country with some of the most conservative drug laws in Latin America. But across the region, a growing number of voices are questioning Washington’s strategy in the drug war. With little to show for tough-on-crime policies, the balance appears to be slowly shifting toward other approaches.

Uruguay enacted a law in 2013 to legalize marijuana, although the creation of a legal marijuana industry in the small country has unfolded slowly. Chile gathered its first harvest of medical marijuana this year. In Brazil, the Supreme Court recently debated the decriminalization of marijuana, cocaine, and other drugs. Bolivia allows traditional uses of coca, the plant used to make cocaine, while in the northern part of the hemisphere, Canada’s new prime minister has pledged in the past to legalize marijuana.

Many leaders in Latin America have called for a shift in the war on drugs, including President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia. In May, his government ordering a halt to the aerial spraying of illegal coca fields, rejecting a major tool in the US-backed anti-drug campaign because of concerns that the herbicide spray causes cancer.

Although Santos is one of Washington’s allies in the region, he has pointed out the incongruity of jailing poor farmers for growing marijuana while it is being decriminalized in the United States.

Mexicans seeking a new strategy have also been struck by the situation. “We are killing ourselves to stop the production of something that is heading to the US, where it’s legal,” said Armando Santacruz, another plaintiff.