Marijuana Seizures Plummet in US and Mexico. Will Illegal Profits Follow?

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Authorities on both sides of the US-Mexico border have seized far less marijuana in recent years — a sign that the legalization of the drug within the United States has diminished the demand for the smuggled variety.

The Mexican army seized just over 825,000 pounds of marijuana in 2017, a 67 percent drop from nearly 2.5 million pounds in 2015. This year, so far, the amount has plunged to about 308,000 pounds, a nearly 90 percent decrease from three years ago, according to a Milenio report.

The trend mirrors diminished seizures of the drug at the US-Mexico border.

Since 2015, marijuana seized crossing into the United States from Mexico has decreased by 44 percent — from about 1.53 million pounds to about 858,000 pounds in 2017, according to reports from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) stations along the southwest border.

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Though detailed seizure numbers at the US-Mexico border are not available to date, the CBP is reporting that through August, agents in all of its sectors — which include the Canada border and US coastlines — have picked up just 723,000 pounds of marijuana.

That stands in stark contrast to six years ago when CBP took in nearly 2.8 million pounds.

InSight Crime Analysis

The spread of legal marijuana in the US neatly dovetails with the drop in marijuana seizures. But other contributing factors cannot be ruled out, such as law enforcement shifting its attention away from smuggled marijuana.

Certainly, the demand for marijuana from Mexico has decreased as more Americans gain access to the homegrown version. In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize the recreational use of cannabis. Since then, ten states have legalized its recreational use and 23 others have signed off on its medical use.

Meanwhile, domestic cannabis cultivation has flourished. In 2016, the year before recreational laws passed in California, farmers there cultivated 13.5 million pounds of marijuana, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Beau Kilmer, co-director of the Rand Drug Policy Research Center, told InSight Crime that a study of his about a decade ago showed 40 to 67 percent of cannabis consumed in the US came from Mexico, but that this has since dropped. “The share of cannabis consumed in the US is increasingly coming from domestic sources,” Kilmer said. “But we don’t know how much.”

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Also unclear is legalization’s effect on drug trafficking organizations’ bottom line.

That 2010 RAND study examining marijuana legalization in California estimated that the drug earned Mexico’s criminal groups about $1.5 billion a year, equivalent to less than a quarter of their revenue. One way legal marijuana in California could hurt cartel income is if cannabis grown in the state were to seep out to where it remains illegal, undercutting black market sales, the report said.

Criminal organizations, however, have begun to smuggle other drugs. The DEA recently reported that heroin and fentanyl seizures have skyrocketed the past few years amid the opioid crisis, and methamphetamines have also turned into big business for the cartels.

But the trend of relaxing marijuana regulations will only continue. Canada just legalized cannabis nationally, and Mexico’s new government appears to want to do the same.

Only more data and time will show how much broad access to legal marijuana has cut into criminal organizations’ illicit profits.

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