Mexico Weighs Drug Policy after Colorado, Washington Legalization

By Rachel Glickhouse and Carin Zissis

In the wake of Colorado and Washington legalizing marijuana, officials and analysts in Mexico debate whether the laws will have an impact on transnational crime issues.

Less than a week after Colorado and Washington voted to legalize marijuana, Mexico’s president weighed in on "the need to examine" drug policy at a meeting he hosted with his Central American counterparts. The two states' November 6 electoral decisions sparked questions about how the changes would impact Mexico's drug war, and members of Mexican President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto's party also made calls for another look at drug policy. But others say that legalization in the two states will have little impact on Mexico’s transnational crime issues.

Over the course of his presidency, Calderón has made no bones about the challenge of trying to control organized crime in his own country while the United States remains a top consumer of illicit drugs. "Part of the problem of violence we are experiencing in Mexico…is directly linked to the fact that we are next to the largest illegal drug market in the world," he said at an AS/COA event in 2011. In September, he reiterated the sentiment before the UN General Assembly and, along with the presidents of Colombia and Guatemala, issued a statement urging the United Nations to review international drug policy.

As such, Calderón's Monday meeting in Mexico City with the heads of state of Belize, Costa Rica, and Honduras was scheduled prior to the Colorado and Washington legalization votes. But the joint communiqué released afterward included a 10-point plan to fight the drug trade that made reference to the "paradigm shift" in local marijuana policies in the Americas. Uruguay is considering legalizing marijuana and distributing it via a state monopoly. In the United States, not only did Colorado and Washington legalize marijuana to allow regulating sale and consumption, but Massachusetts became the eighteenth state allowing medical-marijuana use.

The Mexican debate on drug policy is unlikely to end when Calderón steps down next month. Last week, Peña Nieto's top advisor Luis Videgaray said the next president remains against legalization, but that what happened in Colorado and Washington "changes the rules of the game in the relationship with the United States" in anti-narcotics efforts. César Duarte, governor of the border state of Chihuahua and a member of Peña Nieto’s political party, went a step further and pitched producing marijuana for export, saying: "we would have control over a business which today is run by criminals."

The degree to which marijuana legalization in a couple of U.S. states harms Mexico’s organized criminal groups remains unclear, however. A report by the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness estimates that 40 percent of the marijuana consumed in the United States each year comes from Mexico and that drug cartels could lose $1 billion annually due to Washington state’s legalization of the drug.

But others believe U.S. state-level legalization will have little impact. First, there is the question of whether the Colorado and Washington laws will remain in effect. The U.S. Justice Department could challenge the legislation if it claims federal law preempts state law. Next, cartels have a variety of revenue streams other than U.S. marijuana smuggling. Keith Humphreys, a former White House Office of National Drug Control Policy advisor, estimates that as little as 9 percent of Mexican cartels' total profits comes from U.S. marijuana sales. Writing for InSight Crime, Geoffrey Ramsey covers the cartels' "impressive ability to adapt to changes in the regional drug market" and expand into other criminal activities, from human smuggling to illegal mining. Mexican drug traffickers are also moving into new markets and are now the main supplier of methamphetamine to the United States.

On top of that, the Mexican public may not back major changes to domestic drug policy; a new survey found that 79 percent of Mexicans oppose marijuana legalization. Raúl Benitez Manaut of UNAM’s North American Research Center contends in Animal Politico’s El Palenque column that the recent U.S. drug-policy shifts may have little effect. "There are those from the new [Mexican] government who said…'this is going to change the whole paradigm' on drugs," he writes. "From my point of view, it was a hasty statement."

In other crime-related news:

  • Colombian Minister of Defense Juan Carlos Pinzón introduced a bill in Congress on Tuesday that seeks to criminalize illicit mining. Pinzón explained that there's evidence that organized crime groups allied with guerrillas such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the National Liberation Army to engage in illegal mining.
  • In a November 13 interview with Peru21, Peruvian analyst Jaime Antezana said drug traffickers on the Andean country's northern coast—a major smuggling route—now use sports teams and universities to launder money. He noted that traffickers also funnel money through fishing, mining, construction, transportation, and heavy machinery companies.
  • Bolivia's constitutional court is considering a bill sent to Congress by President Evo Morales that would allow the government to seize assets from those suspected of involvement in narco-trafficking, contraband, corruption, money laundering, and other illicit activities. Countrywide protests against the bill led by transportation workers took place on November 13.