Legal Pot Breaking Cartels

Legal Pot

“Breaking” could be a stretch, but it appears to be a positive step. Pot has been legalized in two US states and one South American country. But the approaches are different with the US states going after more revenue and Uruguay going after the cartels.

For the past two decades, marijuana was responsible for almost half of the drug collars in the US as stated by the FBI’s own crime statistics. The Department of Justice (DOJ) says that a significant piece of the US drug market has been under the direct control of Mexican drug cartels. In 2011, the National Drug Intelligence Center, a branch of the DOJ reported that the cartels dominated the marijuana and heroin drug trade in over one-thousand American cities that year.

To put it in boxing terms, the cartels, and the pot growers, are on the ropes. While the farmers and cartels are complaining that the US’s move towards marijuana legalization is crimping their business, some reports suggest that the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is not interested in letting the cartel’s hold on the marijuana market slip away.

Smaller cartels have traditionally functioned and operated along the border in the southern corners of the country while major actors, like Sinaloa, have an existence throughout America. Sinaloa isn’t alone. With them are six other cartels, Los Zetas, Gulf, Juarez, Knights Templar, La Familia and Tijuana, that have been fighting for control of the illegal drug market for quite some time.

Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that the amount of fresh crops planted has dropped because of a huge fall in prices. A crop of marijuana which used to sell for $100 per kilo now is in the bargain basement section for $25. One grower told the Washington Post reporter, “It’s not worth it anymore. I wish the Americans would stop with this legalization.”

The DEA reported that prior to legalizing pot in Washington and Colorado, approximately 10 million pounds in the US annually and 40 million pounds came from south of the border.

Marijuana legalization in the US is definitely bruising the cartel business. As much as 40 percent of their income came from marijuana. With legalization, the cartels can’t move as much pot within the US currently.

The Mexican Competitiveness Institute released a study in 2012 that found American legalization would eat into the cartel’s business by almost a third. Former DEA specialist, Sean Dunagan, said it’s too early to confirm the numbers.

The effort to set up a legal market will “…necessarily cut into those profits,” said Dunagain. Some agents see the end of a profitable business for the cartels similar to the disappearance of bootleggers when prohibition was repealed.

The DEA has had a long, twisted history with the Sinaloa cartel and often that relationship has been cozy. Often it seems as though the DEA an end to the market for legal weed so the interests of the cartels can be protected.

If the drug war ends, the DEA will lose their influence with foreign governments and the budget will dissipate. The Sinaloa/DEA connection came to light during the “Fast and Furious” scandal. According to congressional watchdog groups, the DEA turned a blind eye to Sinaloa drug shipments and, through silence, swapped immunity to the cartel for information about other cartel activities.

Jesus Vicente Zambada-Niebla, “El Mayito,” explained the 10-year long relationship between Sinaloa and the DEA during court testimony in Chicago. Zambada, son of Sinaloa leader Ismael Zambada, testified that DEA agents gave him deals in exchange for tattling on rival cartels and drug lords from Colombia.

In 2011, Michele Leonhart, the DEA Chief, wrote a letter responding to an federal oversight investigation. In her letter, she downplayed the DEA connection to Fast and Furious saying that it was really an operation mainly ran by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). According to Leonhart’s letter, the DEA office in Phoenix merely assisted. El Mayito’s court testimony painted a far contrasting picture.

In 2011, freelance photojournalist, Jerry Nelson, was embedded with a group of vigilante’s at the US/Mexican border in Arizona. Nelson reported that often drug couriers would pass within 50-100 yards of his position. He and the vigilantes would watch as the couriers crossed Interstate 8 within yards of DEA and Border Patrol agents who would let the couriers pass unmolested.

America’s “war on drugs” has proven to be a failure, but legalization could be the death knell. Since 1972, America has spend $1.3 trillion dollars on the drug war with many local law enforcement agencies finding drugs are easier to get than ever before.

By Jerry Nelson

CBC News
Nick Wooldridge

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