DEA Chief’s ‘Mexico Cartels in US’ Marijuana Alert Smacks of Politics

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The US DEA’s top official has claimed criminal organizations from Mexico are “setting up shop” in the states of Washington and Colorado following marijuana legalization, a politically charged statement that fails to give a full picture of the situation.

Michele Leonhart, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), implicitly criticized the legalization of the drug in those two states in comments made before a House of Representatives committee on April 2, reported the Huffington Post.

She expressed concerns about the potential rise of a black market, stating: “Whatever the price will be set in Washington and Colorado, criminal organizations are ready to come in and sell cheaper.” Leonhart added that many legal marijuana distributors were already acquiring their product from Mexican cartels.

During her formal speech (pdf), the transcript of which does not include the remarks cited by Huffington Post, Leonhart also highlighted heroin as an increasing threat in the United States, and detailed the DEA’s strategy to topple drug trafficking organizations by taking down the highest priority targets.

InSight Crime Analysis

The 2012 legalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado — which went into effect in Colorado on New Year’s Eve 2013 — has been heralded by drug policy reform advocates as a major breakthrough. One Mexican research institute estimated shortly before the legislation was passed that it could result in a 30 percent drop in drug cartel profits.

However, while the legislation aims to regulate all aspects of the production, sale and consumption chain, concerns remain over the potential for criminals to exploit the system. In Colorado, legal marijuana costs $400 an ounce after taxes — twice the price of medical marijuana in the state — while high grade marijuana can be bought for as little as $156 an ounce on the black market, Bloomberg Businessweek reported in January. Problems could also be posed by current caps on production, which could mean legal sales cannot meet demand.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Drug Policy

Nevertheless, Leonhart’s explicit focus on Mexican organizations — as well as her demonization of the legalization move — reeks of political bias. The DEA has been a vocal opponent of the legislation in Washington and Colorado, and continues to frame the drug as a highly dangerous substance, while Leonhart’s past statements on marijuana use and legalization have been highly controversial. 

Furthermore, though Leonhart’s assertions regarding the black market potential may not be completely unfounded, there is no reason to suggest only Mexicans will cash in on the trade, with criminal gangs of all stripes and nationalities inclined to take advantage of the price distortions.

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