How Legalizing Marijuana Would Weaken Mexican Drug Cartels

*Updated Nov. 3, 2010

California’s Proposition 19 to legalize recreational use of marijuana went down Nov. 2 by a vote of 53.8% to 46.2%. The Obama administration and Mexico’s Calderon administration both heavily pressured state voters to continue the drug war, the first by trampling on state’s rights with threats of federal action and the second by issuing baseless warnings of increased cartel violence.

In the months leading up to the vote, opponents of legalization issued a barrage of confused and contradictory arguments aimed at convincing voters to ignore a basic common-sense fact: legal sourcing erodes the black-market profits of organized crime. But organized crime is a business. Reducing demand through providing legal sources would hurt that business and cut deeply into resources used to recruit youth, buy off politicians and purchase weapons.

The most recent argument thrown out in the anti-Prop. 19 campaign, claims that the California marijuana market is insignificant to Mexican drug traffickers.

That argument was blown out of the water on October 18 when the Mexican Army and police seized 134 tons of marijuana, wrapped and ready to be smuggled from Tijuana across the border. The huge cache was estimated to be worth at least $338 million dollars on the street. Mexican authorities guessed that it was owned by the nation’s most powerful drug-trafficking organization, the Sinaloa Cartel.

Even if much of that is distributed to other states, the sheer size of the potential shipment shows that the U.S. marijuana market for Mexican traffickers, calculated at $20 billion a year, is well worth fighting for. Since before Prop. 19 came along, reports showed that Mexico’s drug cartels were concerned about how U.S. production and legalization of medical marijuana cut into their profits.

Prohibition creates the underground market that generates their economic, political and military strength. With the drop in income from marijuana sales, cartels have less money for buying arms and politicians, or recruiting young people into the trade.

The drug cartels also consider the marijuana black market worth killing for. Just days after the historic bust, thirteen young men were massacred at a drug rehabilitation center. An anonymous voice came over police radio saying the act was “a taste of Juarez” and that up to 135 people could be murdered in retaliation for the bust–one per ton.

Although calculating Mexican cartel earnings from marijuana sales will always be a guessing game, it’s indisputable that as long as it’s illegal every penny of those earnings goes into the pockets of organized crime. From the peasant who converts his land from corn to pot to feed his family, to the truckdriver who takes on a bonus cargo, to the Mexican and U.S. border officials who open “windows” in international customs controls, to the youth gangs who sell in U.S. cities–all are sucked into a highly organized and brutal system of contraband.

Legalization in part of the world’s leading market would take a huge chunk out of this transnational business.

The government of Mexican president Felipe Calderon, along with Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, has redoubled efforts in U.S. media and international forums to oppose the California legalization measure. This is not surprising. These two nations are deeply entrenched in a military-model drug war that has channeled a combined total of nearly $9 billion dollars in U.S. government funds to their governments. As in any war, powerful political and economic interests are at stake in perpetuating the drug war.

It’s interesting to see what they say though. Neither President Santos nor Calderon argue that legalization will strengthen drug cartels. Instead, both complain that legalization will erode their drug war by heightening the contradiction between violent crackdowns on growers and traffickers in their countries and the lax attitude toward consumption of marijuana in the United States.

At a recent meeting of the Tuxtla Dialogue in Cartagena, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos said, “It’s confusing for our people to see that, while we lose lives and invest resources in the fight against drug trafficking, in consuming countries initiatives like California’s referendum are being promoted.”

It’s about time that contradiction was exposed. But the way to resolve it is not to increase fumigation operations that destroy peasant livelihoods and the environment and seizures of marijuana shipments that lead to the deaths of innocent civilians, while further criminalizing consumption in the U.S. The way to resolve it is to halt ineffective measures to stop marijuana use, and focus scarce resources on attacking the financial and violent aspects of transnational organized crime, and providing employment and services for vulnerable sectors. Legalization of marijuana, in addition to reducing the economic base of the cartels, frees up resources to do just that.

In a report from the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy former presidents of Mexico, Colombia, Brazil called for discussion on legalizing marijuana, noting, “Prohibitionist policies based on the eradication of production and on the disruption of drug flows as well as on the criminalization of consumption have not yielded the expected results. We are farther than ever from the announced goal of eradicating drugs.” They add that corruption and violence have increased throughout the region as result of the strategy.

The war on drugs launched by President Felipe Calderon has led to more than 30,000 drug-related deaths since late 2006 and the skyrocketing of human rights violations committed by security forces. Last week an international Forum against militarization and violence in Ciudad Juarez, the epicenter of the drug war, was disrupted when police shot a peace protester.

As Calderon insists that there is “no alternative” to the militarized drug war, a recent survey shows that three-fourths of Mexicans polled believe the drug war is failing. Particularly in border towns, grassroots organizations have formed to protest the violence and high social costs. Meanwhile, the government has largely bypassed non-violent ways to reduce the power of cartels, such as legalization, anti-money laundering efforts and social programs to strengthen affected communities in favor of the military/police model supported by the U.S. government.

Organized crime is a business. Reducing demand through providing legal sources hurts that business. Hardline rhetoric and wars of statistics cannot change that fundamental equation.

Laura Carlsen is director of the CIP Americas Program at