Opinion

The Great Debate

California vote and Mexican drug cartels

By Bernd Debusmann
October 15, 2010

What would legalizing marijuana in California, America’s most populous state, mean to the drug cartels whose fight for access to American markets have turned parts of Mexico into war zones? Shrinking profits? Certainly. Less violence? Maybe.

These topics are being raised as the U.S. heads towards Nov. 2 mid-term elections which in California include a ballot initiative, Proposition 19, providing for marijuana to be treated like alcohol and tobacco for Californians over 21. A vote in favour would end 73 years of prohibition and have enormous political impact not only on the rest of America but also on the long-running global war on drugs.

Experts on the issue have been working overtime and the latest of a string of academic studies, out this week, came from the RAND Corporation, a California-based think tank. The voluminous paper is entitled: Reducing Drug Trafficking and Violence in Mexico – Would Legalizing Marijuana in California Help? The study’s four authors, all prominent authorities on the illegal drug business, hedged their answer.

“Our best guess,” they concluded, “is that legalizing marijuana production in California would wipe out essentially all DTO (Drug Trafficking Organization) marijuana revenues from selling Mexican marijuana to California users; however, the share of Mexican marijuana in the United States that comes from Mexico to California is no more than one-seventh of all Mexican imports.”

Note the word “guess.” It stems from the fact that most figures in the long debate on the war on drugs are estimates and many have been manipulated for ideological purposes. According to the researchers, the drug cartels’ marijuana business in the entire United States could virtually evaporate if high-quality marijuana from California were diverted from legal production and smuggled to the rest of the country.

And what effect would that have on the Mexican drug wars, in which the death toll is nearing 30,000? Again, a scholarly hedge, given the difficulties in measuring the drug market and its suppliers. Thus: “It is unclear whether reductions in Mexican DTOs’ revenues would lead to corresponding decrease in violence…The effect of reducing DTO marijuana revenues on violence is a matter of conjecture…(and) could well change over time.”

The reason for the academic caution is simple: there’s no historic precedent for what might happen in California – one state making legal a substance that remains illegal elsewhere in the country and the rest of the world. It is not as straightforward as the 1933 repeal of alcohol prohibition which applied to the entire country.

CURRENT OF OPINION

The before-and-after sequence of lifting prohibition is so obvious that the U.S. Congress passed a resolution on the 75th anniversary of the repeal noting that it had replaced a “dramatic increase” in organized crime with “a transparent and accountable system of distribution and sales” that generated billions of dollars in tax revenues and boosted the sick economy.

While much of the debate on the pros and cons of Proposition 19 has centered on economics, there is an international policy dimension that weighs heavily in Mexico. As former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castaneda recently put it – how can you have Mexicans kill each other over trafficking a drug that is freely available on the other side of the border? If that happened, it would be logical for Mexico to legalize as well.

Would that end Mexico’s violence? “No. But the minute we start removing some of the money the cartels make, then they have less funds available to buy guns, to buy people, to recruit people, to do all sorts of things.” Castaneda was talking about marijuana. Former President Vicente Fox last August went a step further and proposed legalizing all drugs “to break the economic structure” of the drug cartels.

Fox’s successor, Felipe Calderon, who launched the war on drugs, deploying the military, shortly after he was elected in 2006, is opposed to California’s legalization proposition and has publicly complained about “a current of opinion” portraying marijuana as a drug that is not harmful. In his eyes, that’s wrong and prohibition should therefore stand.

That puts Calderon at odds with another of his predecessors, Ernesto Zedillo, and two more former Latin American presidents from countries that suffered from drug violence, Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia. In 2009, they chaired a blue-ribbon panel that rated the international drug war a failure and urged governments to look into “decriminalizing” marijuana, the world’s most widely used illicit drug.

This has been a growing trend for several years as attitudes towards marijuana softened – and more people around the world used it. (According to the U.N.’s 2010 World Drug report, up to 191 million people used marijuana at least once in 2008). Countries that have formally decriminalized the herb’s use include Argentina, Colombia, Luxembourg, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands and Italy.

No country, or jurisdiction, has gone as far as Proposition 19 would take California. Its passage, in a state with 37 million people, would probably prompt a host of legal challenges. It would also send a message to government drug warriors the world over – you’ve been tilting at windmills. It’s time to stop.

Comments
18 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Cannabis was legal in California before 1913,in 2010 the Citizens of that State will have the chance to RE-legalize Cannabis. The intervening 97 years our federal government has held a witch hunt known as the “war on Drugs” against a healthful plant. They lost that war because it was based on lies , and now we can try a different way or continue with the lies. Time to stop the lies !! VOTE YES on P-19.

Posted by LLLou | Report as abusive
 

If the cartels have more money, more weapons, vehicles, military and police force than the Mexican government itself, the Mexican government needs to take all that drug money to cripple them and take all the weapons first. Without money, the cartels will be crippled. They need to do Internet, phone, cell phone, communications, wire transfers and banks surveillance.

The Mexican government needs to take the War on Terrorists approach. They need to cut the communications between the cartels and their customers. Without communications, there is no deal. Find out how they are communicating, then cut it completely. ZERO. Zilch.

Look for their transportations, then cut them completely. You have to get rid of their supports, tools and devices first, then kill them all so they can’t shoot back.

Posted by mjs123 | Report as abusive
 

Great article. Although the prop. 19 debate seems to be centered around economic speculation, it would be nice to see some discourse as to the actual public harm caused by cannabis use. Although calculating any such harm may be even more speculative, I suspect that silence on issue reflects the reality of the impact on our society: that there is none.

Posted by bmmm | Report as abusive
 

The before-and-after sequence of lifting prohibition is so obvious that the U.S. Congress passed a resolution on the 75th anniversary of the repeal noting that it had replaced a “dramatic increase” in organized crime with “a transparent and accountable system of distribution and sales” that generated billions of dollars in tax revenues and boosted the sick economy.

Sound familiar? It’s referring to the repeal of Alcohol prohibition and it is exactly the same thing that supporters or Prop 19 are saying will happen if we end Prohibtion on Marijuana. I think most of the opposition is focusing on scare tactics about things that will never come to pass. If Prop 19 passes, we will not have any more problems with Cannabis users than we do now. Which is to say, almost none. Marijuana users have not taken any toll on Society as the detractors would have you believe. Prohibition HAS taken a huge toll on our Society. It’s time for a change.

I’m 52 years old, I own a business, have a mortgage, and two kids, and I”m voting Yes on Prop 19.

Posted by bareyb | Report as abusive
 

Interesting. Obama is going after Arizona for ENFORCING a Federal immigration law. Now a state is trying to pass a law to legalize cannibus which is AGAINST federal law, yet Obama does NOTHING ?? Like I said, interesting ?!

Posted by masterwebber | Report as abusive
 

This article was well-done, thanks.

“The reason for the academic caution is simple: there’s no historic precedent for what might happen in California – one state making legal a substance that remains illegal elsewhere in the country and the rest of the world. It is not as straightforward as the 1933 repeal of alcohol prohibition which applied to the entire country.”

However, upon the repeal of federal prohibition, some states did maintain statewide prohibition, and many more states developed a local option for each individual county. This is still carried on today, with different “blue laws” and even some entirely dry counties. The fact is that the fear of a “patchwork of laws” is unfounded. Just as with alcohol, variation is completely natural and a comfortable balance will be found. It’s certainly no reason to maintain a demonstrably broken, immoral institution like prohibition.

Posted by Rhayader | Report as abusive
 

If Californian’s can grow their own Pot in their own back yard and sell it to the rest of the country it would certainly help boost California’s ailing economy. I don’t think the federal government is going to put drug officers along the California border like they do in Mexico.
Plus decriminalizing Pot frees up jail space for more violent criminals and reduces the expense of housing Pot dealers.
Let’s do it. Pot isn’t as bad as alcohol and nicotine. Hardly anyone I know hasn’t tried pot.
Tax it and regulate it.

Posted by Naksuthin | Report as abusive
 

I think that the keystone argument in this decision is whether or not this war is working. That would be the very first step in analyzing the issue, no matter which side of the fence you are on. Well, the prohibitionists will tell you that marijuana is easier to get in high school than alcohol or tobacco. They must either think that this means the war is working, or they want more money to fight it. I don’t think that fighting it more and raising the street price to $800 an ounce is going to discourage any growers anytime soon. I would think the fact that it’s the most accesable drug in high school, where kids are prone to make risky decisions and under great amounts of peer preasure, would point to the same direction for both sides of the argument. GET this stuff out of our schools! We can make it harder to get than bud light. Increase the penalties 5X for contributing to minors. Use some tax money to subsidize at home drug tests to help parents raise their kids. What we are doing now is not working, kids are exposed to it everyday at school. It takes a few days work to get alcohol for one Friday night, but it is effortless to stay stoned 24/7. We spend TRILLIONS to achieve this stat. There is every other argument out there, crime, tax money, cartels, personal freedom, whether or not it’s bad for your health. Well, I don’t care if the stuff was as bad as smoking anthracite coal, if it killed you. What we are doing now is putting it in the hands of our kids. If you do however, think that you have domain over my flesh, want to keep me from hurting myself, you should search for a brains scan of an alcoholic. Alcohol shrinks and changes the shape of a brain. It changes the color of it. Exercise and mental activity seem to be the best activities for a brain. Maybe you want to make a law that I have to run every week? Seriously, search for a brain scan of an alcoholic. Could be fun for you.

Posted by SPCmahoney | Report as abusive
 

Sorry about the grammar and poorly constructed sentences. I have a bit of Aspergers. I am in the Army, I do not smoke pot so please do not attribute my writing to drug use.

Posted by SPCmahoney | Report as abusive
 

Cannabis isn’t the main profittable business for Mexican Drug Cartels, but cocaine, heroine, weapons and even human traffic are now becoming part of their millionaire business.

Posted by dr.chalfaro | Report as abusive
 

AGAIN! The Mexican government needs to take the war strategists approach. They need to cut the communications between the cartels, themselves and their customers. Without communications, there is no deal. Find out how they are communicating, then cut them completely. ZERO. Zilch.

Look for their transportations, then cut them completely. You have to get rid of their supports, tools and devices first, so they are disabled.

The purpose of the war on cartels is not to necessarily to kill them but to dismantle them. If you cut the communications between Pedro and Juan, they cannot coordinate and execute what they need to do. I mean if Mexico and the USA can’t even fight the cartels, how can they fight people smuggling in chemical weapons and biological weapons? They have to have the technology NOW to stop organized crime. You cannot give up on organized criminals because they will be around here forever. AGAIN, you have to have the strategy and TECHNOLOGY to dismantle organized CRIME today. For God’s sake, it is the 21st century. This is not the 1930s.

Posted by mjs123 | Report as abusive
 

The most harmful experience a marijuana user will have is getting cuffed taken for a ride in a police car and verbally abused by the officers. The cartels and LEO go hand in hand, same agenda and initiative of making $. Legalizing marijuana takes away both of their core businesses, so that means less prisons, less violence, less profit for street criminals and this is not something the attorney general or his mexi mafia friends can handle.

Posted by toolheadgroins | Report as abusive
 

Conservatives should be (literally) “up in arms” when der Attorney General decides that the commerce clause allows him to declare war on California:
http://gravelle.us/content/atty-gen-decl ares-war-california

But who’s the bigger hypocrite in the marijuana issue:
- a liberal who demands that the federal government stay out of their health issues; or
- a conservative insistant that Washington impose its will upon the states?
http://www.dailyscoff.com/?p=2847

Legalization is a conservative position, and prohibition a progressive one.

BOTH sides of the aisle are schizophrenic on the matter…

-jjg

Posted by jgravelle | Report as abusive
 

It’s a truism to say that it’s easier for a 15 year old to buy marijuana behind his school than it is to buy a 6-pack of beer.(Actually, he couldn’t buy the beer at all. ID enforcement in stores is nearly universal.)

Here’s the perverse equation: marijuana is illegal and beer is not. How hard is it to see how futile criminalization of pot is?

Legalize it, get legitimate companies involved in production and distribution, set a fair unit price, tax it, set an age limit for purchase, and move on to more urgent matters. It’s really quite simple. No more moralizing, no more political posturing, free up law enforcement assets, close down half the prisons in the country, cut off a major revenue stream for the drug cartels. We’d be a better nation for it.

Posted by IntoTheTardis | Report as abusive
 

I do have one question…if we legalize pot, won’t that take even more arable land away from food agriculture? Look what corn-made fuel did, the price of corn shot up. Family farms, unable to compete with the huge agri. giants had to sell out. More unemployed folks moved into the cities. We had to import more to make up for the lack of local foodstuffs.
And, who owns “marijuana” now? Who owns the patents? I suspect that it has been gm’d by now. You folks are thinking about killing the cartels, but I think the situation is far more involved than that.
I’ll go back under my rock now.

Posted by Gneiss | Report as abusive
 

Prop 19 will send the federal government a clear message that support for the prohibition is OVER.

According to the ONDCP, more than 60% of the cartel money comes from selling marijuana in the U.S. Allowing gas stations and supermarkets to undercut cartel prices will eliminate the cartel’s marijuana incomes and end their incentive and ability to continue murdering innocent people.

We are not murderers and we don’t support murder – vote YES on Prop 19!

Posted by jway | Report as abusive
 

I doubt legalizing pot would take arable land from food production, for cannibas grows very easily, without much fertilizer, and in poor soils. Remember, that is why it has always been known as “the weed.”

Another huge benefit of legalization is that finally, industrial hemp will also be grown here in the US, rather than having to import it. The wide array of products that are made, and can be made, from industrial hemp, are amazing, and growing it here will reduce costs!

Posted by jajagabor | Report as abusive
 

How many violent bathtub-gin cartels, or DTOs are there currently in the United States? For that matter, how many “stoners” do we see passed out in doorways who’ve lost control of their bowels?

Alcohol prohibition brought organized crime to power. Legalizing alcohol removed most of organized crime’s presence in the industry. Criminals readjust, so any dip in violence will probably be short lived.

Regardless, the fact remains that compared to either tobacco or alcohol cannabis is safer. Additionally, hemp can be used for food, fuel and textiles. Swap it for cotton and we significantly reduce the use of pesticides and water.

Or, just keep it illegal. Keep throwing billions at the ONDCP, keep filling our courts with people arrested for a victimless crime, thus giving them criminal records. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

What say we drop the Puritan ethic, stop the nonsense, legalize, regulate, tax and move on to more important issues? Lord knows if the government can send someone off to war, allowing the vet to smoke for PTSD shouldn’t be a problem. Hypocrites.

Posted by JonnyO77 | Report as abusive
 

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