Why Legalizing Pot Won't Curb the Drug War

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Advocates may think their recent initiatives have set Mexican traffickers back, but the cartels have already moved on.

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Suspects and weapons siezed during a Mexican Navy operation against the Las Zetas drug trafficking organization are displayed to the media in Mexico City on June 9, 2011. (Jorge Lopez/Reuters)

Over the course of two days in late March, a coalition of U.S. law enforcement groups rounded up more than 40 people accused of supplying the greater Seattle area with illegal weapons and drugs. It was the culmination of nearly a year of painstaking interagency investigative work that traced a smuggling route stretching from Sinaloa, Mexico, through California and Arizona, and into the Pacific Northwest. These were not local gangsters with tenuous ties to the narcos wreaking havoc south of the border. One of the men reportedly confessed to DEA agents that he came to Seattle from Mexico as a 16-year-old. "They brought me here and showed me how to sell drugs," he said.

The bust netted an impressive haul, including 20 pounds of heroin, 30 pounds of methamphetamine, $190,000 in cash, and 31 guns, including 10 assault rifles. One illicit substance was notably absent from the evidence locker: marijuana.

The notion that legalizing marijuana will cripple Mexico's brutal drug cartels has gained steam in recent years, and finally boiled over last month when Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Adults 21 and over in both states will be allowed to possess up to an ounce of processed pot, reversing a prohibition policy that stood for the better part of a century. It's unclear whether the federal government will tolerate the repeal, but if legal pot remains the law of the land, it is widely assumed that Mexican drug cartels will be out several billion dollars in annual revenue.

But talk to entrepreneurs familiar with the existing marijuana industry in Washington and Colorado -- and to law enforcement agents who deal with gang crime -- and there is reason for skepticism. Not only have the cartels diversified their portfolios (to borrow language applied to other multinational, multibillion dollar operations); the Mexican suppliers have already been edged out of the local markets in the two new green states.

Prior to the election, the Mexican Center for Competitiveness, a respected think tank based in Mexico City, issued a report estimating that legalization in Washington alone could cut the cartels' annual marijuana profits up to $1.37 billion by eliminating the black market for pot. Legalization proponents (and numerous media outlets, including The Atlantic) seized on the figure, trumpeting about the opportunity to hit organized crime in the pocketbook as yet another reason to end America's disastrous war on drugs.

The campaign in Washington featured endorsements by the FBI's former field division chief in Seattle, as well as former U.S. Attorney John McKay, a George W. Bush-appointee who had become an outspoken advocate of drug law reform. Pitching the measure, McKay often invoked beheadings in Mexico and emphasized the negative impact that legal weed might have on the vicious narcos.

"I enforced our marijuana laws," McKay said in a campaign ad. "I've come to believe they don't work. Filling our courts and jails has failed to reduce marijuana use. And drug cartels are pocketing all the profits. It's time for a new approach."

Both Colorado and Washington, however, have booming medical marijuana industries that aid legitimate pain patients in need of extremely potent hybrid strains and also indirectly supply an untold number of connoisseur stoners. Mexican marijuana, typically grown outdoors on large plantations, contains little more than 5 percent THC -- the compound responsible for marijuana highs -- compared to the 15 percent or more found on the top shelf of a U.S. dispensary. Josh Berman, cofounder of the 4Evergreen Group, an organization that bills itself as Washington's "premier medical cannabis patient network," says the shrink-wrapped Mexican schwag is looked upon with scorn.

"It's such a flooded market they can't sell that Mexican brick weed here," Berman said. "We have more weed being grown here than anywhere else in the world, probably by three-fold. Every gangster I know is already in the soup line because of medical cannabis."

Mexican drug traffickers are undoubtedly active in Washington and Colorado. The latest National Gang Threat Assessment published by the FBI says the Sinaloa Cartel, for instance, has ties to various Sureño factions and the Mara Salvatrucha, street gangs with an established presence in both states. The FBI writes that these groups that "traditionally served as the primary organized retail or mid-level distributor of drugs in most major U.S. cities are now purchasing drugs directly from the cartels, thereby eliminating the mid-level wholesale dealer."

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Keegan Hamilton is a freelance journalist based in New York.

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