Marijuana legalization may have an unexpected result: Drug smuggling into Mexico

Mexico and USA borderWikimedia CommonsThe US-Mexico border.

Next month, Californians will vote on a raft of propositions, including one that would legalise recreational production and consumption of marijuana.

Proposition 64 would allow Californians over 21 to have up to an ounce of cannabis and permit people to grow up to six plants. It would put a 15% tax on retail sales and ban large-scale production for five years to stave off the arrival of large corporate growing operations.

The prospect of marijuana legalization brings a surprising potential side effect: Marijuana smuggling into Mexico.

According to a report from local broadcaster KPBS, the increased availability of high-quality California marijuana coupled with the relative ease with which marijuana can be carried over the border from the north means that more of the drug could start to move south into Mexico.

“If you’re in Mexico, and you want the best marijuana out there, there’s only one place to get it,” Matthew Shapiro, a lawyer specializing in marijuana in San Diego, told KPBS. “There’s no such thing as high-quality Mexican weed.”

US and Mexican experts told KPBS that legalizing recreational marijuana in California would make it easier for Mexican citizens with visas or dual citizenship to get the drug and carry it back to Mexico.

This already happens on small scale, and the differences between California marijuana and its Mexican counterpart have become apparent: California weed can have a concentration of THC, the plant’s main psychoactive agent, above 30%, while Mexican weed available in Tijuana has about a 2% concentration, Raul Palacios, the director of a clinic in Tijuana, said to KPBS.

The result, as has been seen among Americans not used to the potency of California’s marijuana, is that Mexican users can experience negative side effects, like hallucinations. “So its psychoactive capacity, or psychoactive effect, is more damaging,” Palacios told KPBS, referring to California marijuana.

“The quality is much better over” in California, one clinic patient told KPBS. “It’s more powerful, it gets you higher,” said another.

‘Paying close attention’

Some opponents of California’s legalization push have cited the potential for children to be exposed to marijuana advertisements and use, though a similar criticism could probably be leveled against alcohol or tobacco. Others have noted concerns that small producers could be pushed out of the market by large interests.

Proponents have cited potential financial benefits, including the potential for an additional $1 billion in tax revenue — money that would be put toward drug education and prevention, environmental projects, and law enforcement. Some analysts have argued local jurisdictions would benefit from no longer having to pay to enforce marijuana prohibition.

California is not the only border state weighing a change to marijuana laws. Arizona is also poised to vote on full legalization, as are Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts.

Even if all those states legalise recreational use, southbound smuggling is likely to remain minuscule in comparison to the overall movement of drugs across the border into the US.

One reason for that is low marijuana use in Mexico. A 2008 survey by the Organisation of American States found only 1.03% of Mexicans ages 12 to 65 reported marijuana use in the previous 12 months; that number dropped to 0.07% reporting use over the previous 30 days.

The UN’s 2006 World Drug Report put prevalence of marijuana use at 1.3% for Mexicans ages 15 to 65 and at 12.6% for Americans ages 15 to 64.

Also, Mexico is relatively conservative in its attitude toward marijuana legalization. Less than one-third of Mexicans approve of legalization, while such a measure has garnered over 60% support in the US. In California, a September poll found 58% of voters in favour of legalization.

Current Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto raised in April the possibility of loosening marijuana restrictions in his country, including legalizing marijuana-based medicine and upping the amount a person can carry to a gram.

The sudden stalling of those measures by Peña Nieto’s own party in June raised doubts about his sincerity regarding legalization and decriminalization. In any case, he and other Mexican officials are reportedly “paying close attention” to California’s legalization drive.

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