‘Made in America’ is taking on a whole different meaning when it comes to the supply chain of marijuana consumed every day within our borders, and the unexpected consequences to our Mexican neighbors to the south. Increasingly, U.S. marijuana smokers prefer pot that was comes from our own domestic soil – or greenhouse or growing room, as the case may be. With about half of all states now allowing marijuana for medical use and a handful where even recreational use is legal, one of the things we’ve seen is a huge increase in the quality and THC content of marijuana strains, as it’s grown in better conditions without the cost or hassle of running from the law. Whether patriotic or just preference, the proliferation of Made In America pot is causing a ripple effect into the country and the cartels that used to be our main supplier: Mexico.
These days, it’s damn hard for a cartel to make money the bad-old-fashioned, dishonest way by growing pot and smuggling it over the border into the U.S. to sell illegally at an obscene profit. So more and more, cartels are turning to harder illegal narcotics like heroin, meth, and in lesser degree cocaine, as their cash cow. In fact, seizures of marijuana at the Mexican border are down 37% since 2011, when the wave of states legalizing medical marijuana en masse.
There are several good reasons for the consumer choice: Mexican bud is usually low quality; seedy, grown outdoors, dried but not cured, cheap, and hard-packed in bricks to make it easier to smuggle. And while it’s still up to three times cheaper than it’s semi-legal and good quality U.S. counterpart, Mexican strains typically only have 3-8% THC, while medical grade pot is around 20% or higher in the U.S.
But don’t get it twisted; we’re not “crippling” the cartels, as has widely been reported, they’re just adjusting by switching course to cheaply produced but highly addictive and dangerous brown and black tar heroin and meth instead. Just as marijuana seizures at the border have slowed, there’s been a huge uptick in traffickers of the harder drugs. The supply and demand of it makes sense for them to replace marijuana profits, as well as for the end user. A person in the U.S. can now easily buy a $10 shot of smack or meth when they used to pay $80 for prescription Oxcycodone to feed their addiction. Meth and heroin are also much easier to smuggle across the border. Think about how hard it would be to get huge bricks of marijuana across without detection for a healthy profit, versus meth and heroin, which take up probably 1/100th of the volume and weight at the same profit margin.
So now more than ever, the cartels are sending their stashes over in small portions, taped to the bodies of individuals or hidden in their orifices, instead of huge amounts built into cars and trucks, like marijuana. They’re disguising these smugglers as regular tourists crossing the border, just like regular tourists would.
“The criminals are trying to blend in among the legitimate travelers, who are 99 percent of the individuals crossing through here,” says the director of security at San Ysidro port. “That’s the hard part for us.”
Not only is the impact being felt on U.S. streets with higher rates of heroin and meth addiction, but the impact is trickled down to the poor farmers that grown the marijuana in Mexico. Unlike the rich, flashy, and ultra-dangerous cartels, the farmers are just poor agricultural workers trying to make a paltry income from the soil to support their families. They work on a sharecropper arrangement, doing all the hard work and hoping to make about $150 a month, while the landowner or cartel supplies the seeds, equipment, etc. The farmers are now working harder for less, and very soon won’t be able to afford to grow marijuana, forced to cultivate poppy that opiates like heroin come from.
“Two or three years ago, a kilogram [2.2 pounds] of marijuana was worth $60 to $90,” says Nabor, a young farmer in the northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa. “But now they’re paying us $30 to $40 a kilo. It’s a big difference. If the U.S. continues to legalize pot, they’ll run us into the ground. The day we get $20 a kilo, it will get to the point that we just won’t plant marijuana anymore.”
The reversal of the marijuana supply chain river is so profound that for the first time, we’re actually seeing U.S. marijuana smuggled into Mexico. (Let the irony sink in for a moment.) DEA spokesman Lawrence Payne reported to NPR that Sinaloa cartel operatives are now buying the high-potency medical grade marijuana in the Colorado and other states where it’s legal, and bringing it back over the border into Mexico, where rich customers are willing to pay a premium for it.
“It makes sense,” says Payne. “We know the cartels are already smuggling cash into Mexico. If you can buy some really high-quality weed here, why not smuggle it south, too, and sell it at a premium?”
We can only wonder if there will be a “Made In America” sticker on the smuggled U.S. marijuana, and if the real War on (dangerous) Drugs will start in earnest now.