Racked by drug violence, Mexico wary of Calif. vote on legalizing marijuana

By Nick Miroff and William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 10, 2010; 4:05 AM

TIJUANA, MEXICO - To embattled authorities here, where heavily armed soldiers patrol the streets and more than 500 people have been killed this year, marijuana is a poisonous weed that enriches death-dealing cartel bosses who earn huge profits smuggling the product north.

"Marijuana arrives in the United States soaked with the blood of Tijuana residents," said Mayor Jorge Ramos, whose police department has lost 45 officers to drug violence in the past three years.

But just over the border in California, cannabis is considered by law a healing herb. After the Obama administration announced that it would not prosecute the purveyors, about 100 medical marijuana dispensaries opened in San Diego alone in the past year, selling vast quantities of Purple Goo, Green Crack and other varieties of super-charged pot to virtually any adult willing to pay $59 for a doctor's prescription and $10 for a joint.

The marijuana divide between these sister cities points to major disparities between the fight against drugs in Mexico and their acceptance in the United States.

As the Obama administration presses Mexican President Felipe Calderon to stand firm in his costly, bloody military campaign against drug mafias, Mexican leaders are increasingly asking why their country should continue to attack cannabis traffickers and peasant pot farmers if the U.S. government is barely enforcing federal marijuana laws in the most populous state.

This debate grows more urgent as California prepares to vote in November on Proposition 19, a game-changing ballot initiative to legalize the recreational consumption of marijuana. According to the polls, the vote is tight.

Weary of spectacular violence and destabilizing corruption stoked by the prohibition against pot, some of Mexico's most prominent figures are wondering aloud what legalization would do on their side of the drug war.

Vicente Fox, the former president of Mexico, a rancher and a free-market conservative, said last month that cannabis should be legal in his country. "The sales could be taxed, with high taxes, as we do with tobacco, to be used to fight addiction and reduce consumption," he said.

Marijuana smuggling and sales represent a roughly $10 billion business for Mexico's drug mafias, which earn up to 60 percent of their profits from pot, according to U.S. estimates.

Fox said legalizing marijuana and other drugs "will allow us to hit and break apart the economic structure that allows the drug mafias to generate huge profits - profits they use to corrupt and increase their power."

Calderon, a center-right politician, devout Catholic and father of three young children who has staked his presidency on his fight against organized crime, hosted three days of nationally televised meetings last month to debate "the pros and cons" of legalization.

"It is worth asking if it still makes any sense to maintain our prohibition against marijuana in Mexico when the United States is taking gradual steps toward legalization," said Jose Luis Astorga, one of Mexico's most prominent scholars of drug policy. "Why are we spending our resources on this?"

Legal-pot predictions

U.S. voters have already passed measures allowing the medicinal use of marijuana in the District of Columbia and 14 states, including Maryland. Proposition 19 would legalize the drug for all adults in California over 21.

The nonpartisan voter guide written by the California secretary of state concludes that a commercial marijuana industry could produce "hundreds of millions of dollars annually" in new taxes.

Proposition 19 would allow local governments to adopt ordinances regarding commercial marijuana activities - including cultivation, processing, distribution, transportation and retail sales. For example, local governments could license establishments to sell marijuana and allow customers to get high on the premises. Oakland's City Council has already approved giant indoor marijuana farms as large as two football fields.

But no one knows whether legalization in California would hurt or help Mexico. Bringing marijuana into California from Mexico would remain illegal under federal law.

Still, U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials worry that legalization in California could stoke greater demand that would be met by Mexican cartels.

The Mexican military, working with U.S. agents and intelligence, chops and burns thousands of tons of pot each year in the rugged mountains of the "golden triangle" in Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Durango. Mexico's marijuana- eradication program is the largest in the world, according to the United Nations.

Advocates of legalization in the United States and Mexico argue that California's Proposition 19 would actually hurt the drug cartels.

Given California's agricultural expertise and fertile soils, these advocates say, domestic marijuana yields would soar. A study released in July by the Rand Corp. predicted that the price could crash by as much as 80 percent, a step that could carry with it the potential to displace Mexican supplies and deal a major financial blow to the Mexican syndicates.

"The cartels' power would be greatly reduced," said John Kirby, a former assistant U.S. attorney in San Diego who has prosecuted cross-border drug cases. "For them, marijuana is an easy crop that provides a daily infusion of cash. All of that would be gone."

Much of the Mexican marijuana that reaches U.S. consumers today is a lower-quality, relatively inexpensive product raised on large mountain plantations with little husbandry. At harvest time, it is hacked up, dried and packaged into shrink-wrapped bricks that weigh 30 or 40 pounds and can be smuggled over the border on foot or be stashed in vehicles.

In contrast, the meticulously tended, genetically refined, ultra-potent marijuana typically sold in California dispensaries for $20 to $40 a gram is a cartel-free local product, Eugene Davidovich said. His San Diego dispensary, the Best Buds Collective, acquires its wares only from known providers, not Mexican smugglers, he said.

Made in the U.S.A.

"If someone comes in off the street, it doesn't matter what the price is - we won't buy it," said Davidovich, whose by-the-books operation nevertheless offers medications such as Trainwreck Hash, pot-laced arthritis balm, and jars of crystallized super-cannabis with names such as Afghani Goo.

As much as half of the U.S. marijuana supply is now domestically produced, according to Drug Enforcement Administration estimates, and the homegrown trend has already cut into the earnings of Mexican cartels. The criminals have responded by setting up indoor operations in the United States or large outdoor plots on public lands.

In California, medical marijuana has become a fig leaf for those who want to legally smoke pot.

At one San Diego area doctor's office next to a driving school and a Christian youth center, walk-in patients can fill out a questionnaire, undergo a four-minute consultation with a physician, and purchase a medical marijuana certificate with a "420" identification card granting them access to the state's dispensaries.

Gil Kerlikowske, chief of the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, has stressed that the Obama administration is opposed to the California measure. The White House drug czar traveled to Mexico City last month to counter calls in Mexico for legalization and to show support for Mexico's fight against the cartels.

But in the United States, the Obama administration has largely taken a hands-off approach to state and local efforts to ease cannabis laws, saying it would not pursue licensed medical marijuana users.

In Mexico, the governors of the states that grow the most marijuana and face the most drug violence have warned that no solution is possible unless Mexico and the United States adopt a single, coordinated approach to drug use and drug trafficking, and Mexico's president has made clear that he agrees.

"If there is not an international approach, Mexico will pay the costs and will get none of the benefits," Calderon said in a recent debate. "The price of drugs is not determined by Mexico. The price of drugs is determined by the consumers in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago."

miroffn@washpost.com boothb@washpost.com

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