Jonathan Caulkins, an expert on the drug trade and a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said the beginning of marijuana legalization in the United States could allow Peña Nieto to resist U.S. pressure to maintain a hard line against smuggling groups.
Advocates for marijuana legalization in the United States and Mexico have often argued that ending the prohibition on pot would deny Mexican traffickers a key source of revenue. Analysts generally agree that about half of all the marijuana consumed in the United States comes from Mexico.
If all marijuana consumers in Colorado and Washington state buy the drug legally, then revenue to Mexican drug cartels would probably decrease. But not by much.
U.S. experts who produced a landmark Rand Corp. study in 2010 when California voters were considering the legalization of recreational marijuana use (the measure did not pass) concluded that Mexican cartels earn no more than $2 billion moving marijuana across the Southwest border and that the groups derive 15 to 26 percent of their revenue from marijuana sales.
The study authors estimated that legal marijuana use in California, a state that consumes about one-seventh of all the pot smoked in the United States, would cost the cartels 2 to 4 percent of their revenue. So losing consumers in states such as Washington and Colorado that have a smaller population might not affect the cartel bottom line by much.
U.S. government estimates of drug cartel profits, however, are much higher.
“Marijuana is an important part of their business, but not the most important. Most people agree it’s about 20 percent of their revenues, and so two small U.S. states legalizing marijuana won’t really impact their market share very much,” said Eric Olson, associate director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington.
But Olson said the incoming Mexican president will be watching closely.
“There is a sense of frustration throughout Latin America about the steep costs of confronting drug trafficking. And these votes in the United States, and the reaction to them, might signal a willingness for the countries to think outside of the box on drug policy.”
Whether the loss of some marijuana revenue will reduce killings in Mexico is even more uncertain, as much of the worst violence is attributed to crime rings that have branched out from drug smuggling to human trafficking, extortion, kidnapping, oil theft and DVD piracy.