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2017 was Mexico's deadliest year: Will Sessions marijuana policy make the violence worse?

Kate Irby, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

While recreational pot markets are bracing for a potential crackdown stemming from orders by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, former law enforcement officials say another group is likely celebrating: Mexican drug cartels.

"They are, right now, mapping out a plan to fill this hole," said Arthur Rizer, a former Justice Department narcotics prosecutor. "There are meetings going on. They are watching the same TV panels we're watching and taking notes on what other Republicans are saying."

Marijuana sales made up at least half the cartels' drug revenue a few years ago, according to some law enforcement officials; some studies put it closer to a quarter. In any case, pot provided a significant amount of cash for the organizations. But the amount sold into the United States has decreased since states started legalizing marijuana. A crackdown north of the border would likely put more money in the hands of the cartels -- which would bring more instability to Mexico.

"Violence costs money," said Terry Blevins, who worked in intelligence gathering and security throughout Latin America and subsequently with an anti-terrorism task force with the Department of Defense. "You have to pay off government officials, you have to hire people to kill off those who don't follow orders, and you have to pay off law enforcement to ignore it." And there's more motivation to fight when there are significant profits to fight over, he added.

Sessions announced last week that he was rescinding an Obama-era policy that allowed states to legalize marijuana despite a federal ban; instead, enforcement of the prohibition will be up to the discretion of individual U.S. attorneys, the attorney general said.

Because of other factors -- a major one being the leadership vacuum and subsequent power struggle created by the arrest and extradition of former drug boss Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman -- recent years have been among Mexico's bloodiest. Through November, the Mexican government recorded 26,573 homicides in 2017, the most in a single year since initial tracking began in 1997. The number of deaths fell in 2013 and 2014, but started rising in 2015.

Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational cannabis in the U.S. in 2012. And while it's difficult to pin exact numbers on cartel activity and revenue, border seizures provide some imperfect insights. Since 2011, the amount of marijuana seized crossing into the United States from Mexico has decreased by 66 percent -- from 2.53 million pounds in 2011 to about 861,000 pounds in 2017. The same reports suggest the cartels have shifted to producing more heroin and methamphetamines.

Rizer and Blevins are concerned that number will creep back upward, and could be worse than before.

Rizer, who's now with a libertarian think tank called the R Street Institute, said the cartels will profit from the fact that many people in Washington state, Colorado and elsewhere first started using marijuana when it became legal in their states.

"They're not going to stop now because Sessions says it's bad," Rizer said. "You have a lot of people like that in the U.S., so not only would cartels be able to tap back into their former market, but they'd absolutely have a bigger market."


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