For the past decades, Mexico has been severely affected by illicit drugs. The Mexican government's main strategy so far has consisted in a tough law enforcement and punitive approach, as an echo to the US 'war on drugs' strategy. This approach has resulted in high levels of violence: the number of deaths due to drug-related violence has been rising to 28,000 since 2006 – with more than 6,000 people killed in Ciudad Juarez alone since 2008. 

As a result, many academics, intellectuals and politicians have turned to alternative strategies within the drug policy reform debate, and decriminalisation and legalisation have slowly been considered as viable solutions to the drugs problem. 

In August 2010, President Felipe Calderon declared that he would support a national debate on the issue of legalisation, reversing his previous stance on the subject. However, he underscored that he did not favour legalisation, particularly since the US and the international community maintained their prohibitionist approach.

Nevertheless, Calderon’s call for a debate on the legalisation of illicit drugs is significant, especially now that the US itself seems to be more open to the idea. Indeed, fourteen US States have legalised medical cannabis so far, and Texas has relaxed incarceration rules of first-time offenders. In November 2010, a referendum will be submitted to Californian citizens to vote on Proposition 19, which aims to legalise cannabis use for adults.

The political debate over cannabis in Mexico itself has also been gaining impetus over the past few years, and several bills aiming to some extent to decriminalise or legalise cannabis were submitted for discussion to the Mexican House of Deputies. There is therefore a clear shift in rhetoric around drug policy in the country, with politicians becoming less reticent to discuss alternative policy options to drug control in the face of overwhelming evidence that the current strategies have failed, are expensive, and have been largely counter-productive. For more information on the cannabis political debate, please read the IDPC Briefing Paper ‘Cannabis in Mexico: an open debate’.

Whether legalising cannabis will help to curb drug-related violence in Mexico remains to be seen. Cannabis – the drugs most targeted in legalisation and decriminalisation bills in Mexico and the USA – is not a high-profile product for drug trafficking organisations in the region. Therefore, legalising cannabis might not have a direct impact on the high levels of kidnappings, bank robbery, human trafficking and other drug-related crimes. However, this may help change the nature of the debate and provide an alternative approach to the war on drugs, which could later be used for other illicit drugs.