Legal Marijuana Is Hurting Drug Cartel Revenue

By Keri Blakinger 03/09/16

The negative impact on revenue is causing many drug cartels to produce more heroin and meth to offset the loss.

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Legal Marijuana Could Bring The Cartels Down
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Legalizing marijuana has turned out to be a way to take a bite—or a puff—out of crime. 

According to new data released by the U.S. Border Patrol, marijuana seizures throughout the southwest U.S.-Mexico border are at a 10-year low, as reported in the Washington Post

Agents only snagged 1.5 million pounds of pot last year at the border region, which is a huge decrease from the 2009 high of four million pounds.

For a number of years now, there have been indications that the spread of marijuana legalization might have an impact on the ability of Mexican marijuana farms to realize profits, in light of increased legal plant growth in places like California and Colorado. 

"Two or three years ago, a kilogram of marijuana was worth $60 to $90, but now they're paying us $30 to $40 a kilo," a Mexican pot farmer told NPR in 2014. "It's a big difference. If the U.S. continues to legalize pot, they'll run us into the ground."

In fact, the legalization of pot has changed the drug trade so much that now, the cartels are smuggling the green stuff out of the U.S. and into Mexico, according to a report by U.S. News & World Report.

One of the driving factors for the flow reversal is the high quality of American cannabis. “Traffickers who are operating in the U.S. are securing marijuana in the U.S. that is much higher quality and more expensive for the purpose of smuggling back into Mexico for sale and distribution,” a DEA spokesperson said in 2014.  

Although less profit for the cartels should ultimately be a good thing, there’s also a major downside. As cartels start making less money off marijuana, they’re turning more to heroin and meth. 

Between 2011 and 2015, pot seizures along the border fell 37%—but from 2009 to 2014, heroin seizures tripled. The numbers are similarly shocking when it comes to meth seizures, which quintupled in that same time period. DEA estimates indicate that around 90% of meth sold in the U.S. is made in Mexico, simply because the ingredients are easier to get there. Between 2009 and 2014, meth seizures along the border increased from 3,076 kilograms in 2009 to 15,803 in 2014.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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