Mexican Cartels Compensating for Marijuana Profit Losses with Hard Drug Sales
By Sylvia Longmire
Columnist, In Homeland Security
The movement towards decriminalizing marijuana—and even legalizing it for recreational use—has been gaining steam in the U.S. for over a decade. The legalization of marijuana at the federal level has even been proposed as a solution to the violence perpetrated by drug cartels in Mexico. Although marijuana comprises the largest volume of drugs the cartels move across the southwest border, it’s not their biggest moneymaker. Recent evidence suggests that cartel profits from marijuana are plunging dramatically, but they’re making up for that loss by pushing harder, and more addictive, drugs on American users.
According to the Albuquerque Journal, In the last three years, the amount of marijuana seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers at border crossings and international bridges has fallen by nearly half — from 602,795 pounds in 2015 to 338,676 pounds in 2017. However, during the same time period, methamphetamine smuggling steadily climbed from 29,001 pounds seized at border crossings in 2015 to 44,065 in 2017.
Several events and factors have combined to lead to this shift in drug smuggling dynamics. Most American meth was produced domestically until the U.S. severely restricted the availability of critical precursor chemicals ephedrine and pseudoephedrine in 2006. Mexican cartels saw an opening in the market and a growing demand, so they started importing the chemicals from southeast Asia, then producing meth in-house. Eventually, they started smuggling just the chemicals across the border and “cooking” the lethal drug closer to its U.S. user base. The DEA says about 90 percent American meth production and traffic is controlled by Mexican drug organizations.
The rapidly expanding opioid epidemic has also resulted in a huge spike of both heroin trafficking and opiate overdoses. Users initially would get addicted to prescription pills like OxyContin and Vicodin. Once they reached a high tolerance level, they started needing something stronger. Again, Mexican cartels saw an opportunity and found a way to produce a form of heroin that was not only purer than the lower quality brown powder variety—they were able to sell it for cheaper than black market pills and in a form that didn’t need to be injected.
It’s not that drug users in the U.S. are turning away from marijuana; domestic growers are just getting better at selling it themselves. According to the Washington Post, American marijuana consumers have increasingly turned to the more potent, higher-grade domestic varieties cultivated under legal and quasi-legal protections in more than two dozen U.S. states. Raul Benitez-Manaut, a drug-war expert at Mexico’s National Autonomous University, told the Post, “Legalization of marijuana for recreational use has given U.S. consumers access to high-quality marijuana, with genetically improved strains, grown in greenhouses.”
Smuggling marijuana in bulk across the border is a liability for smugglers. In order to be profitable, it must be packaged in large bundles and transported either in larger SUVs or trucks, or even on the backs of illegal immigrants traveling in groups. “Hard” drugs like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine are easier to package, hide, and transport. But most importantly, they are much more profitable than marijuana in small amounts. Ultimately, cartels will more easily be able to adjust to market changes and maximize their profits than the law enforcement agencies working so hard to mitigate their efforts.