Marijuana publishing is a growth industry—except in Mexico

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Marijuana media is a high-growth US industry: A majority interest in High Times sold earlier this year for $70 million, and other cannabis publications have sprung up across the country, including The Cannabist, LadyBud, and Marijuana Business. And the quality of cannabis coverage has improved across the media, with serious stories in major outlets.

But just as mainstream acceptance of marijuana in the US hits all-time highs, one prominent cannabis media offering in Mexico is facing a government shutdown reminiscent of the 1960s.

The Mexican government is threatening to shutter the country’s sole marijuana culture magazine, Cañamo. Mexico’s Commission for the Qualification of Illustrated Publications and Magazines, a branch of the Ministry of the Interior, announced last summer it had denied the bimonthly glossy’s domestic circulation certification, because it says the magazine promotes “acts against morality and good manners” and it “apologizes for the consumption of prohibited substances.”

If the commission’s decision about Cañamo stands, anyone who publishes, sells, or circulates Cañamo could face 15 days in jail and fines, says Cañamo editor Julio Zenil.

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What makes this crackdown odd is that Mexico’s government actually legalized medical marijuana last June (though they still do not have a regulated medical marijuana system). The commission’s secretary, Joel Ruiz, tells CJR that if Cañamo stuck to covering medical marijuana or the science of medical marijuana, per the new law, there wouldn’t be a problem. Rather, the magazine talks about marijuana culture, and recreational use, and therefore is promoting illicit activities.

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Cañamo, founded in 2015, is the country’s version of Cañamo España, a decades-old cannabis magazine in Spain. It reports on cannabis culture from the perspective of the consumer, specializing in medical marijuana information and cannabis culture and politics from around the world.

All publications in Mexico need the commission’s certification to be sold in kiosks, as well as to use the postal service to send print editions to subscribers. Of 250 publications prohibited by the commission since 1989, Cañamo is the only one to be targeted since the Enrique Peña Nieto administration began in 2012. Most of the magazines previously targeted were either pornographic in genre, such as Japanese hentai, or covered weapons.

Mexico isn’t the only country tough on cannabis content. High Times magazine Senior Cultivation Editor Dan Vinkovetsky, who writes under the name Danny Danko, says his book, The Official High Times Field Guide to Marijuana Strains, published in 2011, was banned in Australia and New Zealand. High Times also doesn’t ship to those nations, and Vinkovetsky says when they’ve tried in the past, issues have been returned. (Disclosure: I’m a former High Times news editor, and have been vocal about the need to legalize.)

David Bienenstock, a VICE cannabis columnist and former editor of High Times, is quick to say that despite the First Amendment, US publications weren’t always as accepting of marijuana cultureor honest about cannabis facts or willing to use knowledgable sources. Today, he says it’s easy to see the reporting of the past as propaganda.

Today’s censorship in Mexican publishing echoes back to the roots of cannabis journalism: The free press movement of the 1960s, of which High Times founder Tom Forçade was a part. It was an underground publishing movement aimed at activism that  that saw publications’ salesmen and vendors arrested. “It’s a clear parallel” to what’s happening to Cañamo, Bienenstock says. “The government is using its power to try to shut down a magazine because they don’t like what they [are publishing] about marijuana.”

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Despite Mexico’s lack of freedom of the press and a dubious journalism environment that is often compared to that of Iraq and Syria, Cañamo has grown to a circulation of 5,000 glossy print copies and a strong following on social media. The magazine is careful not to write about narco-traffickers, which Zenil says “without a doubt” keeps them safe from the crosshairs in the bloody drug war.

Zenil also notes the commission is placing a double standard on his magazine, as other publications print pictures of graphic violence. Photos of murder and torture are commonplace in Mexican newspapers and magazines. And it’s not just narco crimes. Car accidents and fire victims, among other violent and bloody incidents, are sensationally splashed on front pages.

“It’s absurd,” Zenil says, to permit publications to print such graphic violence on their covers yet prohibit Cañamo, the first publication in Mexico to ever put a picture of the marijuana plant on its cover.

Zenil says that cannabis laws and attitudes are in fact changing in Mexico—in 2015, the majority of the population favored medical marijuana, yet almost as many people still did not support full legalization. For a conservative country with deep, Catholic roots, this demonstrates a shift away from traditionally held beliefsespecially the belief that marijuana is bad, or that only bad people or narco-traffickers use it.

Bienenstock says grassroots publishing, including what Cañamo prints, can help to shift the wider cultural perspective.

“Censorship of Cañamo is… arbitrary… and has nothing to do with marijuana,” Zenil says. “In a country where journalists are in grave danger, censoring a publication is further silencing voices that think differently than government.”

Cañamo Mexico’s attorneys are appealing the commission’s decision to Mexico’s tribunal colegiado. They will go to trial sometime in the next 12 to 18 months. In the interim, Cañamo has won the right to keep printing. If they lose, they may still be able to publish digitally.

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Valerie Vande Panne is an award-winning independent journalist, currently based in Boston. Her work has appeared in the Boston Phoenix, The Daily Beast, Mashable, and Salon, among other publications. She is a former editor of Detroit’s alt-weekly, the Metro Times. Follow her on Twitter @asktheduchess.