Marijuana confiscated at the Arizona/Mexico border. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
On Nov. 6, 2012 America did something that no modern country has ever done—it legalized the cannabis plant through citizens’ direct vote. Even in Amsterdam, long touted for its pot-friendly ways, marijuana-friendly coffee shops are only permitted under the guise of a vague policy of toleration often referred to as decriminalization. At the news of the passing of this unprecedented bill, recreational marijuana smokers rejoiced, animated college-dorm room conversations went up a notch, and drug dealers in Colorado and Washington grumbled. But another reaction, one of perhaps far more reaching consequence, occurred thousands of miles away in our neighboring country of Mexico. Here, under the cover of darkness, some criminals mobilize about the streets and deserts carrying illegal product; plotting a scheme to keep profits from falling due to America’s new marijuana legislation. Here the cartel wreaks havoc on law enforcement and citizens alike, and a very big part of what “they do” might be just about anything they have to in order to get illegal drugs into America.
The “War on Drugs” has been going on for many many years with largely disappointing results, and the decision of two U.S. states to legalize the production and use of marijuana for non-medical purposes has shaken the very premise of this already failing war. The passing of Amendment 64 in Colorado and Initiative 502 in Washington could quite possibly work to steer the “drug problem” conversation in a very different direction—allowing for a new discourse that could have ramifications far beyond our own borders.
American smokers currently import from 40 to 70 percent of their cannabis from Mexico and most, if not all of that marijuana is coming specifically from the notoriously violent, difficult to put down Mexican cartels. While it is hard to attribute exact figures to such inherently clandestine operations, based on aerial sightings conducted by the U.S. Drug Czar’s office, it is believed that the cartel receives somewhere between $1.1 and $2 billion a year in profits from the sale of marijuana. Marijuana is certainly a key piece of their business, but not the crux of it. It’s estimated to account for around 20 percent of their revenues, meaning that two states’ movement to legalize might not impact overall revenues, unless other states decide to follow suit.
The Mexico City-based think tank Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (IMCO) has speculated that marijuana grown in Washington and Colorado could end up being sold in other states as well, but this new legally grown pot would have a dramatically lower asking price. Lower prices in turn might result in U.S. marijuana consumers who usually purchase Mexican weed to switch to marijuana grown in the U.S. simply because it’s cheaper, even if it still might be illegal in their own states.
Sylvia Longmire, author of Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars remains doubtful as to the ramifications of legalization for the cartel. “If marijuana makes up 60 percent of the cartels’ profits, that still leaves another 40 percent, which includes the sale of methamphetamine, cocaine, and brown-powder and black-tar heroin. If marijuana was legalized, the cartels would still make huge profits from the sale of these other drugs”, says Longmire in a New York Times editorial.
Plus, Longmire says in the same article, “there’s no reason the cartels couldn’t enter the legal market for the sale of marijuana, as organized crime groups did in the United States after the repeal of Prohibition.” One aspect of the cartels operation that would undoubtedly cease with the onslaught of legalization is their practice of controlling outdoor marijuana crops that grow on American soil.
Frustration throughout Latin America regarding the expenses necessary to confront drug trafficking is commonplace. In the light of legalization in Colorado and Washington, Mexican officials are beginning to ask themselves if it makes sense to carry on with a full-force military campaign, which has generated so much conflict in their country, in order to curb the entrance of a controversial substance into the United States that is no longer necessarily illegal. These votes in the United States, and the reaction to them, might indicate a willingness for countries to perceive their own drug policies differently.
“The U.S. has also always been a global leader in paving the way for societal changes – democracy, women’s rights, etc. – and true legalization in the U.S. would no doubt cause other countries to rethink the logic of their own drug policies,” says Longmire in her editorial.
American voters may not have realized it when they said yes to ballot 64, but they may have inadvertently sparked a broad debate in Mexico about the direction and costs of the U.S.-backed war against drugs—a debate that could echo through other countries around the world as well. A new consideration of drug policy and its place in society, at home, in Mexico, and around the world. A lot to consider as you sit on your back porch at night and get high…