Weed Wars

Dispatches from the California Marijuana Front

October 12, 2010
Rand: Prop 19 hurts Mexican traffickers only if state exports pot

A new Rand Corporation study disputes claims by proponents of California's Proposition 19 initiative that widely legalizing marijuana in the state will cripple Mexican drug cartels.

The Rand report, released this morning, said the ballot measure will have little impact on drug trafficking from Mexico - unless Proposition 19 results in California pot growers smuggling huge quantities of home-grown Golden State weed across the United States.

The report said legalizing marijuana beyond currently legal medical use in California would, at best, put a two to four percent dent in the revenues of Mexican drug cartels.

But Rand researchers offered one notable exception: They said if Californians moved heavily into the illegal pot exporting business to other U.S. states, they could slice more than two-thirds out of revenues from Mexican marijuana networks.

"The only way Prop 19 could importantly cut (Mexican) drug export revenues is if California-produced marijuana is smuggled to other states at prices that out-compete current Mexican supplies," read the report from Rand's International Programs and Drug Policy Research Center.

Prospects of California marijuana legalization reducing drug violence in Mexico were also questioned in the report, entitled, "Reducing Drug Trafficking Revenues and Violence in Mexico - Would Legalizing Marijuana in California Help?"

"With respect to whether marijuana legalization in California could help reduce the violence in Mexico, our best answer is not to any appreciable extent unless California exports drive Mexican marijuana out of the market in other states," wrote Rand researchers Beau Kilmer, Jonathan P. Caulkins, Brittany M. Bond and Peter H. Reuter.

They added: "The extent of such smuggling (from California) will depend on a number of factors, including the actions of the federal government and other states. It is very hard to anticipate how the conflict between state, federal and international law engendered by Proposition 19 would play out."

The Rand study estimated that Mexican drug traffickers generate $1 billion to $2 billion annually exporting marijuana to the United States and selling it to wholesalers. It disputed other studies claiming that pot accounts for 60 percent of Mexican drug cartels' revenues. The report said "15 to 26 percent" is a more credible range for Mexican networks that also traffic in cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin.

Proposition 19 would legalize marijuana use and possession of an ounce of pot in California for adults over 21, permit small residential cultivation and allow cities and counties to tax and regulate retail pot sales.

The Rand report presents a challenge to a ballot argument by Proposition 19 proponents, who say passage of the initiative will help cut into drug crime from Mexico.

"Marijuana prohibition has created vicious drug cartels across our border..." wrote retired San Jose Police Chief Joseph D. McNamara, retired Orange County Superior Court Judge James P. Gray and former Los Angeles Deputy Police Chief Stephen Downing, all Prop 19 supporters. "Sixty percent of drug cartel revenue comes from the illegal U.S marijuana market. By controlling marijuana, Proposition 19 will help cut off funding to the cartels."

In a statement, Stephen Gutwillig, California state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, disputed Rand's estimates that downgraded the scale of the illicit marijuana market. He said the initiative is a potent tool to weaken criminal drug trafficking networks.

"The prohibition on marijuana in this country has been such a profound failure largely because it fuels a massive, increasingly violent underground economy on both sides of our border with Mexico," Gutwillig said. "Banning a substance outright that is already so widely consumed simply drives that use into the shadows and empowers the criminals that control this enormous, profitable market."

The Rand report estimated that California accounts for one-seventh of U.S. marijuana consumption and pot production "that is already stronger...than elsewhere in the United States."

Kilmer said today that the claim that marijuana trafficking accounts for 60 percent of Mexican cartel business - which Prop 19 proponents cite from the Office of National Drug Control Policy - "is simply not credible." But he said Americans' consumption plays a significant role.

"The drug related violence occurring in Mexico is tragic, and we know a lot of what is happening in Mexico is fueled by American demand," he said.

To see the full report, click here.

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