The Surprising Effect Legalized Marijuana Is Having On Ruthless Mexican Drug Cartels

On Wednesday, Oregon became the latest state to allow the recreational use and possession of marijuana, though sales are not expected to roll out until sometime next year.

Still, the state can expect to see tax revenues flush with new money––more than $30 million each year, under proposed legislation––and a sharp reduction in the number of serious felony convictions for marijuana-related crimes.

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But the benefits of legalized cannabis in Oregon, like in other states, will likely extend beyond state borders. In Mexico, where marijuana has enjoyed something of a cash-crop status over the years, violent drug cartels are beginning to see their grip loosen on what was once a tightly cornered market as the reach of U.S.-grown pot expands in legal states. And while exports of other illegal drugs have increased in the vacuum of marijuana's shrinking money-making viability, relaxed marijuana laws in the U.S. are crippling a once robust cash flow for cartels.

Cartels have been brutal crime bosses.

In recent years, Mexican cartels have enjoyed a lucrative position of power, controlling major drug supply chains across the continent and exerting a command of local populations punctuated with tactics that recall the worst abuses of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria and Iraq––earlier in June, video footage surfaced of a man and a terrified young boy with ties to a rival gang being tortured, then strapped with sticks of dynamite and blown up.

Are Americans at fault for the cartels' power?

High stakes beget harsh tactics, and in the drug trade, where billions of dollars sit waiting to be claimed by the most consistent supplier, this is expressly, tragically true. It's estimated that since 2006, Mexico's drug wars have claimed over 100,000 lives, and as long as demand keeps up, that number will grow. Since the U.S. is a major consumer of Mexican drugs, many see troubling links between American consumers and violence across the border. Speaking in Mexico City in 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that not only were U.S. consumers complicit in fueling Mexico's drug war, but also that failed drug policies were to blame. "Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade," she said. "Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers, and civilians."

"Clearly what we've been doing has not worked," she told reporters at the time.

Violence is down in Mexico.

Others theorize that the U.S. is uniquely positioned to cut supply chains and weaken the influence of cartels by relaxing drug laws, pointing to marijuana as a case study. "[W]e're winning the war on marijuana along the border -- costing the violent sociopaths of the cartels millions of dollars -- by legalizing it," wrote Don Winslow on CNN this week. Since 2011, a period during which potent, domestically produced marijuana has grown in popularity among users, the amount of marijuana seized by U.S. agents at the border has dropped by almost 40 percent, the Washington Post reported in January. And according to at least one study by the University of San Diego's Justice in Mexico Project, there could be a correlation between decreased violence and a drug market increasingly slipping away from cartels. Since 2011, when murders in Mexico peaked at 22,480, homicide rates have dropped consistently each year, falling to 15,649 in 2014, researchers reported in April. Along the U.S.-Mexico border, murders dropped by almost 18 percent in that time.

Considering that around 30 percent of cartels' drug revenues come from marijuana exports, the drop in violence could be linked to the loss of what was a booming business.

The decline of Mexican marijuana exports has had some negative effects.

But there are other consequences to the drop in Mexican marijuana exports. For one, farmers who once harvested valuable crops are planting less and less, which in turn could be leading to a role reversal, with higher quality U.S. marijuana being exported down south, as DEA spokesman Lawrence Payne pointed out on NPR last year. Cartels are also turning their focus to heavy drugs to replace lost earnings, a trend evidenced by federal seizures at the border. Between 2013 and 2014 alone, according to last year's National Drug Threat Assessment Summary, at the same time marijuana seizures were down by 20.9 percent, cocaine down by 3 percent, and ecstasy down by 87.7 percent, border agents reported a 5.2 percent increase in heroin and a 9.8 percent increase in methamphetamine.

Even despite cartels' ability to diversify, which has extended their revenue streams beyond drugs and into extortion and kidnapping, among other things, legalization in the U.S. has already made a significant dent in exports, and possibly, related violence as well. And in an era where many policymakers consider the efforts of the war on drugs to have largely failed, the marijuana case study could be something to keep in mind.