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Can Legal Cannabis Curtail Mexico’s Cartel Activity?

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Remember the time Mexico decided to legalize all drugs?

The year was 1940. Mexico’s president was Lázaro Cárdenas, who had served as a general for the Constitutionalist Army during the Mexican Revolution. Following his efforts to nationalize the country’s oil industry in 1938, Cárdenas decided to enact a truly revolutionary piece of law: The Federal Regulation of Drug Addiction not only decriminalized the sale of personal amounts of substances ranging from cannabis to heroin, but also allowed for doctors to treat those who were suffering from addiction as patients rather than as criminals. 

This grand experiment lasted a total of six months. During that time, the illicit drug market was effectively crippled. Writing for the BBC, Dr. Benjamin Smith noted that during this period, government morphine cost 3.20 pesos a gram, [while] on the street, the same amount of heroin cost between 45 and 50 pesos.” Despite the positive response from doctors and journalists of the time, the Mexican government quickly decided to revert back to the old laws, citing the impracticalities of importing cocaine and morphine from Europe during wartime as their reason. Not surprisingly, several powerful (and notably racist) U.S. politicians also had a hand in killing the policy, using the 1935 Law of Importation and Exportation of Narcotic Drugs to enact an embargo on Mexico, further stifling their access to narcotics. On June 7, 1940, Mexico’s government opted to reintroduce its old legislation and the Federal Regulation of Drug Addiction was officially dead.

Seventy-eight years have passed since Mexico’s brief foray into ending drug prohibition, but government officials are gearing up for a new effort — this one focused solely on cannabis. On October 31, 2018, Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled that an absolute ban on recreational marijuana (the term used by the court) was unconstitutional. Members of Mexico’s newly installed leftist national government quickly worked to put a plan into action, culminating with Senator (and soon-to-be interior secretary) Olga Sánchez Cordero submitting a bill to the nation’s congress to officially end prohibition and initiate cannabis regulation.

Should the bill pass — and all evidence suggests that it stands a very real chance of becoming law — Mexico will become the third country behind Uruguay and Canada to federally legalize adult use cannabis. Politicians like Cordero are hoping such a move will once again quash the terribly violent operations of cartels and illicit drug trade within the nation, but others remain skeptical.

Is legal cannabis really the answer to curtailing the bloody actions of cartels, or is it simply a long-overdue first step?

To fully understand the scope of Mexico’s bloody past when it comes to the so-called black market, one must understand the sheer magnitude of its operations. As reported by the L.A. Times, there were 31,174 homicide victims in 2017, more than in any year since the government began releasing such data more than two decades ago. This year [2018], Mexico is on track to surpass that record.” The country’s stance on reducing violence has long been to take a military-led approach to dismantling cartels — an effort that appears to have yielded few, if any, true accomplishments. 

In a decisive victory over the summer, Andrés Manuel López Obrador became the 58th President of Mexico. His campaign was largely built on a promise to end the violence currently ravaging the country, and suggested that new ideas — including the decriminalization of certain substances, as well as amnesty for select nonviolent offenders — would be part of his plan to combat what has become an epidemic of bloodshed. 

Part of the logic in Senator Cordero’s bill lies in the idea that law enforcement officials will be free to pursue more dangerous criminals once they are no longer tasked with arresting sidewalk cannabis vendors. Furthermore, the entirety of operations geared around cultivating and transporting cannabis would transform from an illegal enterprise into a taxable and regulated business. Legal cannabis also invites the prospect of increased tourism trade — something Canada and a growing number of U.S. states have factored into their decisions to permit adult use markets, as well.

On the reverse side, there is still the looming question of just how much of a factor cannabis even is for modern-day Mexican cartels. With international demand up north now in shambles, thanks to regulated markets in Canada and parts of the United States, it should come as no surprise that drug cartels are pivoting their focus to reflect supply and demand. As USA Today notes, some smaller farmers who once focused on cannabis are switching to opium poppies, which bring a higher price.” Opium gum is then processed into heroin, which is in extremely high demand in the U.S., as opioid addiction continues to escalate as a national crisis.

It is also worth noting that cartels are no longer limited to illegal substances in terms of their avenues for profit. Human trafficking and kidnapping are also on the rise, as are politically-motivated killings. Between September 2017 and July 2018 alone, 130 politicians were murdered, as the country falls into disarray characterized by a weakened government, political corruption, and dispersed gang activity.

With cartels fracturing in the post-El Chapo era and Mexico’s police force chronically understaffed, there is arguably little reason to think that legalized cannabis alone will provide the necessary counterbalance.

For acclaimed journalist Sam Quinones — author of two books centered on Mexico, including the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Dream Land: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic — it may be premature to assume cannabis is no longer a primary asset for cartels.

My feeling is that many traffickers still do a big business in pot,” Quinones told Civilized, though not perhaps what it was several years ago. There’s still significant traffic in it at the border.”

However, if the efforts of Canada and legal states like California have taught us anything, it’s that cannabis represents an entire ecosystem of employment, social justice, environmental regulation, entrepreneurship, and scientific research. While it may take far more than the legal sale of pre-rolls to quell the tide of violence that’s currently erupting in Mexico, that is no reason not to proceed with a gambit that promises far more good than bad. 

A 2015 BBC report notes that 60 percent of those incarcerated in Mexico were convicted of drug-related offenses. Of that number, 60 percent were serving time for cannabis crimes. The resources that would be freed merely by commuting or vacating the sentences of (potentially nonviolent) cannabis offenders would be a massive boon to an economy direly in need of capital. At the same time, jobs in cannabis cultivation, trimming, transportation, testing, packaging and finally selling products at the retail stage present a potentially lucrative new — and legal — line of employment. Pair these new jobs with a substantially less-burdened prison system and a police force no longer dedicating time to petty cannabis crimes, and you’ve got the makings of a truly promising new chapter for Mexico.

But Quinones agrees with the premise that legalizing cannabis will not, alone, resolve Mexico’s cartel woes.

I think that’s not so much the big issue,” he explained. It’s whether the U.S. as a whole legalizes it. That’s the question. The closer we get to that, the worse it’ll be for the drug trafficking culture [and] business in Mexico. But they have, for many years now, been diversifying into a wide variety of drugs — especially those they can make domestically, such as meth and fentanyl.”

Unfortunately, the apparent truth is that drug cartels don’t care much about what it is they’re selling. When President Cárdenas made his bold gamble to legalize everything nearly 80 years ago, the substance of the day was cocaine. For many years, cannabis has played a key role in cartel operations. At present, opium and heroin are the drugs du jour in combination with human trafficking, extortion, and more. With the advent of regulated medical (and now adult use) cannabis in the United States, the value of the crop as an illegal export has dropped precipitously.

The challenge for President Obrador is thus not to promote a false equivalency between legalizing cannabis and snuffing out the cartels. While the former will clearly affect the latter, the wiser approach is to see them as two separate endeavors that are not bound to one another. If legalized cannabis in Mexico provides jobs, tourism, taxes, and a reduced strain on prisons and police officers, it could undoubtedly be a worthy pursuit; however, if legalized, the extent to which cannabis would stifle drug cartels is much harder to predict. 

Some believe cannabis is a miracle. Others view it as a commodity. For Mexico, it represents a soothing balm that could, in part, heal a nation in need, as citizens aim to rid their land of those who value profits above morals and lives. If — or more likely, when — the country decides to officially enact a federally regulated cannabis market, it will not be the final blow to cartels, but perhaps it can serve as a desperately needed first punch. 

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