Marijuana Legalization and The War on Drugs

From Donald Trump’s plan to construct a wall between the United States and Mexico to revisiting Nancy Reagan’s influence on Drug Policy in the 1980’s with the “Just Say No” campaign, 2016 has reminded us of the long and unresolved nature of the United States’ battle with drug policy and border control. Countless dollars, resources, and lives have been lost over the course of the War on Drugs for more than 30 years, but has it been effective?

Recent data from the US Border Patrol shows that, last year, Marijuana seizures and deaths along the Southwest border fell to their lowest levels in at least the past five years.

Southwest Border Drug Seizures Vs. War on Drugs Spending

YearDeathsMarijuana (lbs)Heroin (ounces)Meth (lbs)War on Drugs Spending (millions)
2011 357 2,518,211 6,191 1,838 25,731.60
2012 463 2,297,662 6,383 3,430 24,497.20
2013 445 2,428,419 8,937 3,446 23,800.40
2014 307 1,920,411 9,205 3,771 25,724.90
2015 240 1,536,499 8,237 6,429 28,882.90


While it may look like this decrease is attributed to more stringent border policies and increased spending, if that were true, then the presence of all drugs across the board would be decreasing. But this isn’t the case. Meth and heroine have increased significantly from their 2012 levels, the year that marijuana was first legalized in Washington and Colorado, meaning that as marijuana becomes less profitable, the cartels are adapting with new substances.

Many agree that with the gradual legalization of Marijuana in the United States, Mexican cartels are facing stiffer competition than ever before.  As domestic growers continue to push prices down, illegal marijuana from Mexico is being phased out. In certain instances, the price per kilogram has decreased by 70% over the past four years. According to one criminal defense lawyer in San Diego, this trend is especially evident in one of the largest junctions between Mexico and the United States.

San Diego Border Marijuana Seizures

It’s not only the price; the quality of the product produced in Mexico is seen as inferior to the crops grown domestically. This makes sense when one is being grown under highly controlled conditions and the other is grown outside, hidden between other crops such as corn. The price and quality is so superior in the United States that there are even instances of marijuana going in the reverse direction and being smuggled into Mexico from the United States.

The reason that cartels are shifting away from Marijuana is the exact same reason why the War on Drugs continues: money. Decriminalizing drugs has proven to reduce usage rates, crime, and overdose deaths in countries such as Portugal, where all drugs are legal. However, minimizing the war on drugs comes with the price of removing employment opportunities for law enforcement. More than 20,000 agents patrol the United States border with thousands more in domestic law enforcement, and if policies are loosened and budgets cut, those jobs will soon follow.

Marijuana legalization’s impact has shown that funding the War on Drugs is somewhat of a paradox. Its main purpose is to eradicate drug use, but it cannot be too successful, otherwise many are out of a job. Decriminalization and legalization, however, have shown that they have the potential to eliminate the war and actually bring in revenue. According to Forbes, Colorado brought in nearly $70 million in tax revenue from marijuana sales between July 1, 2014 and June 30, 2015, almost twice as much as alcohol.

If an economic focus on history has taught us any lessons, then the role of money here cannot be overstated. If economic factors have the ability to squeeze out drug cartels while also raising money for local governments, then a critical look at our nation’s drug policy is in order. Otherwise, we are throwing large sums of money at an ineffective solution.

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