Legal Marijuana & Drug Cartels

Will legal marijuana hurt cartel power?

By Scot DuFour  |   May 24, 2017

The elections of 2016 increased the number of states that allow for legal or decriminalized use and possession of marijuana. You can now legally use marijuana recreationally if you are at least 21 years old and are in Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, or Washington, D.C. There are many arguments about the benefits of legalizing marijuana, and there are many unanswered questions about the real-world affects. This article is only addressing the claim that legalizing marijuana will have drastic negative effects on Mexican drug cartels.

The argument that legal marijuana would hurt the drug cartels seems like commonsense. Making marijuana legal will eliminate the need for a criminal organization to provide the marijuana to an illicit market. And if there is no need for the criminal organization then the organization will lose money and power. Some legalization proponents claim that legal marijuana will hurt drug cartels so much they may pull out of the drug business altogether and that places where marijuana is legal will be less affected by addiction to other drugs.i

Illicit Markets for Legal Commodities

There are many examples of legal commodities for which an illicit market still exists. Tobacco is taxed heavily and disproportionately across the globe, which has resulted in an illicit market for tobacco. As of 2014, the Italian Mafia is estimated to make approximately 520 million Euros annually from trafficking cigarettes.ii Studies in the United States have shown that a similar illicit market exists in the United States for tobacco, especially on the East Coast. Recently, a very strong and dangerous illicit market has developed in the U.S. for prescription opiates that are legal but regulated. These are all examples of illicit markets that exist for products despite their legal status.

The Mexican Cartel Business

Cartels make money by understanding the market conditions and responding appropriately. According to the DEA National Drug Threat Assessment (NDTA), marijuana seizures at the southwest border dropped significantly between 2013 and 2014 in almost every border corridor. That decline suggests that legal marijuana in the U.S. might be decreasing marijuana sales from Mexico. Unfortunately, analyzing other numbers from the same period reveals that it’s unlikely the cartels are losing a great deal of money.

Heroin seizures at the southwest border have increased from under 500 kilograms in 2000 to well over 2,000 kilograms in 2013 and 2014. Methamphetamine seizures increased in every single border corridor for the same period with one corridor reporting an increase of 245%. The need for foreign marijuana supply in the United States has potentially decreased the amount of marijuana entering the U.S. from Mexico. The cartels have responded by increasing heroin and methamphetamine shipments, which is feeding our drug epidemic.

Although the cartels have clearly increased their production and distribution of heroin and methamphetamine, they remain active in the marijuana trade. The cartels operate within the U.S. and the fragmentary legalization of marijuana across some states has created a new illicit market. Places like Colorado and Washington have become environments that are friendly to organized crime because the illegal marijuana can hide in plain sight and be shipped to other states where it fetches higher prices. Drug statistics are only part of the story because cartels make money in numerous non-drug ways.

Cartels are increasingly becoming involved in kidnapping, extortion, and other crimes that are traditionally called “street crime.” One trend is the increase of petroleum theft conducted by cartels, especially Los Zetas, in Mexico. Illegal petroleum pipeline taps have increased from fewer than 500 in 2007 to more than 3,500 in 2014. Cartels are now feeding a black market for gas and oil, and making millions. Human trafficking for labor and sex trafficking are also growing areas of cartel activity.


Drug cartel is a misnomer. The groups that we have traditionally called drug cartels are responsible for much more crime than merely manufacturing and distributing drugs. Drugs as crime might be debatable to some but organized petroleum thefts that undermine the economic stability of Mexico and crimes like human trafficking are blatantly heinous. The name drug cartel does not do justice to the threat these groups truly are.

The Mexican cartels have not been eliminated or even slowed down by the fractured legalization of marijuana here. The decrease in profit they may have suffered from marijuana legalization has been replenished by increased heroin, synthetic opiates, and methamphetamine or through non-drug criminal activity like human trafficking and petroleum theft. Perhaps there are benefits to marijuana legalization. But proponents of legalization need to stop claiming it will drastically hinder organized crime.

i Gay, S., & Ray, S. (2013). “War on drugs”: How will domestic legalization affect international conflict? The Brown Journal of World Affairs, 20(1), 245-252.
ii Calderoni, F. (2014). Mythical numbers and the proceeds of organized crime: Estimating mafia proceeds in Italy. Global Crime, 15(2), 138-163.
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Scot DuFour

Scot DuFour

Scot DuFour began his career in law enforcement with the Phoenix, Arizona Police Department in 2004 and worked primarily on patrol in South Phoenix. In 2008, Scot moved to Colorado and transferred to the Aurora, Colorado Police Department where he was selected for the Vice and Narcotics Section in 2011. Scot is currently a Task Force Officer with the Drug Enforcement Administration’s OCDETF Strike Force. Scot has an AAS in Law Enforcement Technology with honors, a BA in Philosophy with a concentration in ethics, magna cum laude, and a Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice with honors.
Scot DuFour

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