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Legalizing marijuana in California would not curtail Mexican drug organizations, study says

A new study concludes that Proposition 19, which would partially legalize marijuana in California, would do almost nothing to curtail violent Mexican drug organizations that ship the drug across the border, a finding that undermines one of the main arguments proponents have made.

The report, released Tuesday by the Rand Corp., the non-partisan research institute in Santa Monica, estimates legalized marijuana could displace Mexican marijuana sold in California, but says that accounts for just 2% to 4% of the revenues gangs get from drug exports.

The researchers said that if California’s legal pot were smuggled around the country, it could replace most Mexican marijuana sales, slicing more deeply into cartel revenues.

They say, however, that that scenario is highly unlikely. “We do not believe that the federal government will stand idly by if California were to capture the entire national market now held by Mexico-sourced marijuana,” they wrote in the report, called “Reducing Drug Trafficking Revenues and Violence in Mexico: Would Legalizing Marijuana in California Help?”

Comparing the Mexican drug gangs to the mafia after alcohol prohibition, the researchers also say that they are likely to find other businesses, just as the mafia did to replace bootlegging. In the short term, they conclude, violence might even increase as gangs fight over smaller revenues.

Proposition 19 would allow cities and counties to authorize the cultivation and sale of marijuana. It’s unclear, even if the initiative passes, how many would do that. It’s also unclear whether the Obama administration would allow it, since marijuana is illegal under federal law. The researchers do not address those issues. The initiative would also allow people 21 and older to possess as much as an ounce and grow up to 25 square feet of marijuana.

The initiative has triggered a serious debate south of the border, where a four-year campaign against drug gangs has left 30,000 people dead. Last week, Mexican President Felipe Calderon stressed his opposition, saying that the United States has done too little to suppress consumption. But Calderon's predecessor, Vicente Fox, supports the initiative and has called for legalization in Mexico.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said the initiative would not solve Mexico’s drug problems in the short term, but said, “When marijuana is legal, over time, the criminal organizations are going to lose all of their competitive advantage.”

Roger Salazar, a spokesman for the campaign against Proposition 19, said it would have little impact on cartels if it passed. “There’s going to be a tremendous opportunity to traffic in marijuana and make money in avoiding the taxes, so there’s still going to be a shady element,” he said.

The Rand report takes a harsh view of U.S. government estimates of the role marijuana plays in the revenues earned by cartels, dismissing the commonly cited claim that it makes up 60%. The researchers estimated marijuana revenues at between 15% and 26%. The higher estimate was published by the drug czar in 2006, but the researchers could find no documentation to support it.

“This 60% figure is a truly mythical number, one that appeared out of nowhere and that has acquired great authority,” they wrote. “This figure should not be taken seriously.”

The report also notes that U.S. government estimates of marijuana production “have long been inconsistent and sometimes implausible.” To illustrate the absurdity of one number, the researchers calculated regular users would need to smoke a joint every two hours they are awake.

The researchers suggest the government should start collecting better data. “Existing estimates about drug production and consumption are cryptic, inconsistent, and often impossible to verify,” they conclude.

Gil Kerlikowske, the drug czar, embraced the report’s conclusion that Proposition 19 would not dent the cartels. “At a time when drug use in America is on the rise,” he said, “we must focus our efforts on actions that will protect young people from the harms and consequences of illegal drug use instead of supporting initiatives that will make our nation’s drug problem worse.”

As part of their study, which they acknowledge is replete with uncertainties that could alter the results, the researchers had to do such calculations as determining the average weight of a joint: .46 grams.

The researchers also conclude that Mexican marijuana, which is lower in quality and lower in the main psychoactive ingredient than California-grown pot, has a U.S. market share between 40% and 67%.

Putting the wholesale price of Mexican marijuana at about $400 per pound, they determined that Mexican drug organizations make about $1.5 billion from exporting marijuana to the United States.

The researchers conclude that California marijuana, grown legally, could compete with the price of Mexican marijuana, even if it were taxed. And they note that California consumers would likely prefer the state’s pot, which is at least two times as potent. In an earlier report, Rand concluded that the price of marijuana would plunge about 80%, if it were legalized.

-- John Hoeffel

Comments () | Archives (91)

I appreciate that the report acknowledges Californian grown marijuana could displace Mexican imports nationwide if the proposition passes, and that the main obstacle to this happening is the federal government's continued committment to maintaining the perpetual drug war.

The point is to make our own stand and challenge the rest of the nation to follow us.

This is the fourth day in a row anti-pot articles have run on the front page.

Can you journalists uncover any harm from the legalization of medical marijuana? As opposed to refuting straw men arguments first advanced, if we are honest, by Mexican officials looking for DEA funding, not dreamed up by the Pro-19 camp.

its is possible the way this article is written it is correct, however, the cartels will will have to deal legally with american workers and company's to sell pot retail, not to mention that now the marijuana will be taxed. its win / win for California.
don't let republicans fool you, its a good bill . As good as the alcohol bill is.

Yes on 19:)

The Mexican Mafia also grows marijuana in CA for selling in CA and other parts of the US, I would imagine. Since 9/11, it is not as easy to smuggle marijuana into the US, so the Mexican Mafia grows it here now. I'm not sure, but I imagine the profits are still lucrative and go back to Mexico.

Yes ... the Rand Corp ... the same people who brought you the Pentagon papers ... after keeping them secret while thousands died in illegal government actions. And so ... just why is it I'm supposed to trust anything these bozos say?

Consider the messenger.

The Rand Corp is funded in part by BIG pharma and the insurance lobby. How did they gather statistical evidence from drug cartels? Their argument is a slippery slope using a red herring as its' precipice making it invalid even as a fallacy. The researchers even state their conclusion: “Existing estimates about drug production and consumption are cryptic, inconsistent, and often impossible to verify.” What a useless article. Does the Times support prohibition?

good so your saying if it is legalized, california would be making all the money because weed would be sold all over and its no longer the mexicans getting it.....sounds good to me

This so-called study reeks of bias. Anyone with any common sense realizes that legalized marijuana will severely impair the Mexican drug cartels.

Tobacco is legal and you don't see the cartels running tobacco across the border? Possibly the same thing happens with pot?

Well, this has helped me make up my mind, shutting the doors on gangs and cartels was the only thing that held me in support. I have been browsing pages for this debate, and some in opposition are posing some serious, yet reasonable arguments, that advocates are not responding to. I encourage all of your readers to visit each page regarding this issue. No on 19

I love how people are always drawing false parallels between marijuana and alcohol. Yes, alcohol abuse is a problem. But so is the abuse of marijuana, prescription pills and other drugs. At the end of the day, everyone will choose their own poison, legal or not. But legalizing marijuana is not going to improve society, and I think the RAND study sheds light on the false claims made by the stoner revolution. There are consequences to marijuana abuse that have nothing to do with its legalization. Can we see a study on how smoking weed leads to decreased productivity? How about a study on how stoned people are typically more socially awkward? Or maybe one on how "harmless" drugs still kill your soul? Yeah, that would probably be hard data to collect. So in the meantime, let's keep the medical model in place. Those who "need" the drug should be able to get it from a dispensary ... not their back yards. No on 19.

"We do not believe that the federal government will stand idly by if California were to capture the entire national market now held by Mexico-sourced marijuana"

What planet do these people live on? Since when has the federal government EVER been able to stop the trafficking of marijuana?

Prohibition is a sham. Time to legalize.

I think marijuana users should boycott the LA Times because they obviously hate and revile their marijuana-using readers.

Why do anything to help the people who don't want you around?

The New York Times does a better job of covering the marijuana community in California anyway.

What about the marijuana that comes from Mexico to Cali, and then on to other states, how revenue does that bring in?

I'm skeptical about the 2-4% number, but even if that is true, I'd rather that go into California's coffers than into the hands of dangerous drug dealers.

It's a telling sign when all of the "research" includes such vapid criticisms and assumptions. Can't we have reasonable debate on this?

It's interesting to note that, despite scientifically-inspired studies like the RAND Corp's, many local politicians in California continue to conflate marijuana with immigrants, gangs, and violence.

Not only do Hollywood movies like "Pineapple Express" distort the world of California marijuana, local officials like LA District Atty Cooley use the media to propogate false and phony associations between marijuana and immigrants, gangs and violence -- in much the same way that Bush falsely claimed Saddam Hussein had connections with Al Qaeda and African uranium suppliers.

The fact is that California marijuana is part of what Prop 19 refers to as the "cannabis commercial industry" -- it is the same industry that believes in union rights, global warming science, immigrants' rights, prisoners' rights, privacy rights, and does not believe the Federal Government's legal proscriptions regarding drugs serve any interests other than the tobacco and alcohol industry's well-protected, right-wing and entrenched-lobbying interests.

80% drop in price! Holy crap chronic quarters for 20 bucks the world would be a happier place.

California is a sizable market worth millions to the cartels.
If it is legalized here, and the feds don't interfere, then eventually other states will replicate what California did if only to save the money that was previously being used to charge and house people who use pot.

Helping out Mexico by depriving the criminals there a stream of revenue is simply an added bonus, not the main goal. Pot has long been lumped in with more harmful drugs because the cotton and lumber industries benefited from it being that way. (Hemp for cloth, lumber for paper). In more recent decades you had the anti-drug industry spring up that benefited by employing those who preached the anti-drug message as well as stimulating the need for additional jobs related to law enforcement activities.

Cannabis prohibition is an affront to Freedom. Anyone who supports cannabis prohibition is a nanny-state control freak.

Who cares? It will stop wasting a lot of cops' time.

"Violence may increase".

"Will not dent the cartels".

Isn't that the complete OPPOSITE of what our resident dopers have argued for years?

“We do not believe that the federal government will stand idly by...”
So they are claiming it will be more difficult to get legally grown pot across the CA border than cartel pot across the Mexican border (arguably the most heavily patrolled in the world)? Come on LA Times, filter out the BS for us! Also its funny how when the 60% number from Bush's own drug czar is used against the drug warriors it suddenly "should not be taken seriously."

Wow, what an incredibly misleading title but fully expected from the paper the LAtimes has become. California currently grows some of the best marijuana in the world for one of the world's biggest markets for it. We have little use for the cheap and often terrible stuff coming from mexico. The only question that remains in this debate is whether or not the state wants to make money on an industry that already exists whether you like it or not.

Legalize...Don't criticize.

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