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Mexicans and Marijuana (December 24, 2003)

A recent Associated Press story by Don Thompson reports:

“Mexican cartels have taken over much of California's marijuana farming, boosting both the potency of the drug and the propensity for violence from armed guards protecting the crop, the nation's drug czar said Monday.

“They're planting huge marijuana plots on public lands, creating a growing danger to hikers and hunters stumbling into the line of fire, said John Walters, director of National Drug Control Policy, in advance of appearances Tuesday in Reno and South Lake Tahoe, Nev.

“California's Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement estimated that 84% of plants seized this year were controlled by Mexican gangs, in what the bureau called ‘a major strategic and organizational shift’ from recent decades.

“‘Many people think of marijuana growing as just run by a bunch of guys who are Cheech and Chong in the movies, kind of fun-loving guys,’ Walters said in an interview with The Associated Press. ‘These are violent organizations. They're using violence without hesitation — it's part of doing business to them.”

The multibillion-dollar Mexican cartels have discovered it's safer and more profitable to grow marijuana in the United States than to try to smuggle it across the border, he said. Instead, they're often importing guards and handing them firearms with orders to shoot at anyone coming by.

They're also branching into methamphetamine production, often using what authorities have dubbed “super labs.” And this summer authorities for the first time discovered 40,000 opium poppies growing in a remote area of the Sierra National Forest bordering Yosemite National Park. The poppy plants originated in Mexico, Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman Richard Meyer said Monday.

‘The public lands have become a preferred area of operation for these organizations that are increasingly violent and sophisticated,’ Walters said. ‘People think they're hiking in a remote wilderness area, and they come across these plots or these labs and they're run by armed and violent criminals.’

Three-fourths of the marijuana gardens discovered by California authorities this year were on public lands like state and national parks and forests. As recently as 2001, the majority of plants were seized from private land.

California's recent harvest season was one of the most violent in years.

In just one deadly week in September, law enforcement officials in Northern California fatally shot four armed guards protecting marijuana plantations. San Luis Obispo County sheriff's deputies were shot at as they entered a garden; a hunter walking near a marijuana grove in Los Padres National Forest was shot at by three men armed with automatic weapons, and guards tending a Ventura County garden shot at a backcountry hunter.

Walters is to address federal, state and local officials from California's Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP) Tuesday, but said he also wants to hear more from them about the trends they're discovering, which appear to be spreading to other states. Earlier in the day he is scheduled to tour Step 2's Lighthouse of the Sierra drug treatment program in Reno.

Federal, state and local drug agents are working up models that can better predict where the drugs will be grown or made, Walters said. In addition, the US Forest Service, Park Service and Bureau of Land Management are making drug enforcement a bigger priority, which he said should make next year a record year for fighting drug activity on public lands.

Improved intelligence is the greatest need, he said. The Mexican government under President Vicente Fox is targeting drug cartels that pose that nation's greatest risk of domestic terrorism and corruption, and has improved its drug operations to the point that US and Mexican authorities now share sensitive information they wouldn't have dreamed of disclosing a few years ago.

‘We've had a greater cooperation in the last several years than we'd had the last 20,” Walters said. “These groups have been using the border as a shield. We're increasingly taking away that shield.’

Squeezing the balloon in Mexico pushes more of it into the United States. The size of marijuana plots discovered in California has grown, as has the potency of the drug, Walters said.

Twelve California raids netted seizures of at least 10,000 plants this year, and one plantation had more than 70,000 plants. The average raid resulted in a seizure of 2,500 plants. The CAMP program seized a record 466,054 plants this year  —  up 100,000 plants from last year with a street value law enforcement officials estimated at $1.9 billion. They also seized 50 weapons.

State and federal agents said growers are using a higher grade sinsemilla marijuana with much more of the active component tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.

Marijuana that had a 1% concentration of THC in the 1980s and perhaps 4% in the 1990s now has a national average of 7-9%. The potency can reach 13-15% in marijuana grown outdoors, and near 30% indoors, Walters said.

Those high concentrations mean more profit per pound as well. Marijuana that went for $2,000 a pound in 1983 sells for $4,000 to $10,000 per pound 20 years later.”


The AP interview with Drug Czar Walters perpetuates the familiar charge that Mexican pot cartels have taken over the California marijuana market. If true, this is of course testimony to the bankruptcy of federal marijuana policy, which, in the same manner as alcohol prohibition, has pushed the market into the hands of criminals.

One must, however, be skeptical of the claim that the California market is dominated by “multi-billion dollar Mexican cartels.” A cartel is by definition an organized conspiracy of large-scale producers aimed at monopolizing a market. There is no evidence of such an organization, nor, to my knowledge, has a single “multi-billion” dollar Mexican organization ever been identified as growing pot in California. What we have seen is a growing number of large-scale (multi-thousand) plant grows planted by Mexicans on public lands. Information about the culprits is sketchy, however, many seem to be no more than modest-sized groups of relatives and friends with connections in Mexico.

One can only guess at how much of the product from these so-called “Mexican plantations” actually reaches the California market. Because of their ambitious size and public siting, they are the first pot fields to be busted and account for the lion's share of the pot reported seized by California’s Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP). However, a higher percentage of the surviving crop undoubtedly comes from smaller grows, which are less likely to be busted in the first place.

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