CRS Congressional Report Legalization Hurts Drug Cartels

Marijuana legalization in states across the US, as well as Canada, means less demand for cannabis trafficked from Mexico to service the illicit market, according to a new congressional research report.

The report, titled Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking Organizations, was drafted by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) – a subdivision of the Library of Congress – which is responsible for providing lawmakers with research and analysis on a range of policy issues. The report’s authors concluded state-legal markets means marijuana consumers are less likely to source marijuana through illicit channels, which in turn means a continued decline in trafficking activity from Mexico.

“Authorities are projecting a continued decline in U.S. demand for Mexican marijuana because drugs ‘other than marijuana’ will likely predominate,” the report, published last month, reads. “This is also the case due to legalized cannabis or medical cannabis in several U.S. states and Canada, reducing its value as part of Mexican trafficking organizations’ portfolio.”

Nonetheless, Mexican law enforcement have still been busy busting plantations and seizing black market products. The authors of the CRS report said 5,560 acres of marijuana plants were destroyed last year, while 91 metric tons of illicit cannabis were seized. These figures, while substantial, still mark a significant drop compared to amounts seized and destroyed by Mexican cops in years gone by.

The CRS document notes the decrease in marijuana trafficking is the result of steps towards legalizing cannabis in Mexico, following a 2018 Supreme Court ruling which deemed prohibition on personal use as unconstitutional. The nation’s highest court imposed a deadline on lawmakers by which they must legalize marijuana but this has been pushed back several times, initially due to political wrangling over the adult-use bill then by the COVID-19 pandemic. The new deadline for Mexican lawmakers to pass cannabis legalization legislation is December 15, 2020; the end of the next legislative session.

While the CRS report and Mexican lawmakers contend that legalizing marijuana leads to less marijuana trafficking, it is also the case – as the report notes – that Mexican drug cartels are responding to the onset of cannabis legalization throughout North America by diversifying their illicit activities towards other drugs, such as opioids and cocaine. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts seemingly acknowledged such a decline in illicit marijuana activity alongside an uptick in offenses concerning other illegal substances in his 2019 end-of-year report.

The downward trend in cannabis trafficking from Mexico to the US was also highlighted in a study from the Cato Institute in 2018 which reported that legalizing weed at the state-level “has significantly undercut marijuana smuggling.

“Based on Border Patrol seizures, smuggling has fallen 78 percent over just a five-year period,” the Cato Institute report reads. “Because marijuana was the primary drug smuggled between ports of entry, where Border Patrol surveils, the value of the agency’s seizures overall—on a per-agent basis—has declined 70 percent.”

Another 2018 study published by the Royal Economic Society showed violent crime has dropped in southern border states which have legalized medical cannabis, with the author’s arguing this is due to reduced economic incentives to carry out marijuana trafficking operations in such areas. Earlier this year, the US Drug Enforcement Agency noted a significant reduction in illicit cannabis activity owing to state-level legalization in its report for fiscal year 2021.

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