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The case for a domestic marijuana industry

The only way to stop drug gangs is to end their monopoly on production.

Violence in Mexico is getting worse by the day. There are reports of beheadings, killings in the several thousands, and an environment of fear that makes it impossible for Mexican officials to do their work. The country’s very stability may be threatened. 

It’s time to put an end to U.S. policies that subsidize these murderous drug gangs. The first step, as a growing chorus of voices is arguing, is to end the quixotic policy of prohibition, a proven failure.

But the United States can do even better; by empowering a domestic marijuana industry, the United States would squeeze Mexican cartels’ profits, cutting off the financial lifeline that sustains organized narcocrime.

According to U.S. and Mexican officials, some 60 percent of the profits that fuel Mexican narcotrafficking come from just one drug: marijuana. Although such estimates are inherently imprecise, there is no doubt that marijuana is the cash cow that makes these gangs the powerful, dangerous force they are — both in Mexico and in the 230 U.S. cities where cartels are thought to operate. The chief of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Mexico and Central America Section recently told the New York Times that marijuana is the “king crop” for Mexican cartels, because it “consistently sustains its marketability and profitability.”

Last November, the U.S. Joint Forces Command warned in its “Joint Operating Environment” report that Mexico “bear[s] consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse” due to drug cartel violence. Some critics saw the report as unduly dire, but at a minimum, as outgoing CIA Director Michael Hayden warned, drug cartels “threaten … the well-being of the Mexican people and the Mexican state.” A further increase in instability would constitute a national security and humanitarian crisis on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. For now, there is no end in sight to the worsening violence and no adequate plan to address it.

This appalling situation is not just happenstance. It is the direct result of prohibitionist U.S. policies.

Like it or not, marijuana is a massive industry. One hundred million Americans admit to government survey-takers that they’ve used it, with nearly 15 million acknowledging use in the past month. That’s a huge market — exceeding the number of Americans who will buy a new car or truck this year, or who bought one last year. Estimates based on U.S. government figures have pegged marijuana as the No. 1 cash crop in the United States, with a value exceeding corn and wheat combined.

Current U.S. policies are based on the fantasy that Americans can somehow make this massive industry go away. But prohibition hasn’t stopped marijuana use. Although marijuana use hits peaks and troughs over time, overall consumption of the drug in the United States has risen roughly 4,000 percent rise since the first national ban took effect in 1937. In other words, for 72 years, the U.S. government has in effect granted criminals, including those brutal Mexican gangs, a monopoly on production, distribution, and profits.

The solution is already apparent: Make marijuana a legal, regulated product like alcohol and tobacco are. After all, there’s a reason these gangs aren’t smuggling wine grapes. When you have a legal, regulated market for a product, the underground market disappears. Indeed, the United States already has an illustrative example from its own history. During the 13 dark years of alcohol prohibition, drinking didn’t stop, but gangsters such as Al Capone got rich. When Prohibition ended, the bootleggers — and the orgy of violence that accompanied them — went away. By taking marijuana out of the criminal underground and regulating it, Americans can cut the lifeline that gives Mexican drug gangs their power.

There are benefits for the United States, too. For the first time, regulators would have a level of control over marijuana production and distribution, both of which are impossible under today’s system. Over time, the domestic marijuana industry would start to look like California’s wine business: a responsible industry that adds to the state’s prestige, tourism, and tax coffers, rather than a source of violence and instability.

Critics have already started to object, claiming that such a move would set off a surge of marijuana use. But in the Netherlands — where adults have been permitted to possess and purchase small amounts of marijuana from regulated businesses since the mid-1970s — the rate of marijuana use is less than half that of the United States, according to a recent World Health Organization study. More importantly, the percentage of teens trying marijuana by age 15 in the Netherlands is roughly one third the U.S. rate. Indeed, a 2001 National Research Council report commissioned by the White House found “little apparent relationship” between criminal penalties for drug use and the prevalence or frequency of use.

Most everyone can agree on one thing: The situation today is intolerable. Three former presidents of Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil have recently joined the call for the decriminalization of marijuana in its largest market, the United States. Mainstream commentators, editorial boards, and members of U.S. Congress have begun to join in. The momentum has shifted, and a solution is at the world’s fingertips.

What’s needed is the political courage to grasp it.

Aaron Houston is director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project.