Let's just come right out and say it: A lot of people in the United States like marijuana, for a bunch of different reasons — to the extent that marijuana legalization is even a ballot measure in nine states.
In Mexico, drug cartels still benefit from smuggling huge quantities of "grass" across the border into the US. But even if just one of those ballot measures passes on Election Day, it will impact the cartels' business.
Here’s where it gets interesting: Mexicans are now buying US-made marijuana. It’s better, stronger and in demand.
“There’s been anecdotal reports of boutique, very high-THC-concentration, marijuana being brought down from the US for sale in Mexico,” says Deborah Bonello, a senior researcher with InSight Crime, a group that monitors organized crime and security threats in Latin America.
“Those products would be more expensive than your standard Acapulco Gold," Bonello says. "But there are people who are prepared to pay for it.”
On the northbound smuggling tracks, prices per kilogram of Mexican marijuana have been dropping since legalization in states like Colorado and Washington. But this doesn’t mean the drug cartels are hurting.
“You’re seeing producers shift their focus from marijuana to poppy,” says Bonello. “It’s the boom crop right now.”
But it’s difficult to show or prove just how much the cartels are shifting crops.
“These organizations are very opaque,” says Bonello. “They don’t have their, you know, end-of-year results.”
We do know the cartels are not completely abandoning marijuana. In late October, border agents seized 280 pounds of marijuana headed north. But it does look like heroin is the new moneymaker.
Bonello says that criminal organizations, like ones in Mexico, provide the vast majority of heroin hitting the streets in the US. Demand for the drug is linked to people becoming addicted to prescription painkillers, and looking for a cheaper alternative to sate their addiction after their prescriptions run out.
Mexican drug cartels see this crisis as an opening.
“Criminal organizations are some of the most agile and nimble in the world,” she says. “They will adapt to whatever people want. The cartels jump on it because it’s huge money to them.”
So, don’t think the legalization of marijuana in the US will hurt the cartel’s influence or bottom line. They’ll be just fine. They might just expand their inventory to include more imported US weed.