Legalization will have "devastating consequences for the country" - U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.)
*Updated Sept. 19*
In testimony before a congressional subcommittee this week which has been widely quoted by the Mexican press, U.S. Drug Enforcement (DEA) Administrator Michele Leonhart said new laws in Colorado and Washington permitting the possession and consumption of cannabis for recreational and medicinal purposes have quickly attracted the attention of Mexican drug traffickers.
Leonhart appeared Wednesday before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science, and left no doubt about her feelings on cannabis decriminalization in the U.S. and its impact on Mexico's 88 month old drug war.
In November 2012 Colorado and Washington approved citizen initiatives which legalized individual possession of the drug. Those laws, the first recreational marijuana statutes in the United States, came into force earlier this year. Colorado now has dozens of retail cannabis sales outlets where business is thriving, and Mexican drug cartels are interested in participating in the industry, albeit beneath the radar, according to Leonhart.
"We already know based upon our ongoing investigations of key drug traffickers in both Mexico and the United States that the cartels are setting up black markets in both of those states," Leonhart told committee members Wednesday. "Regardless of what the price may be in Colorado or Washington, the cartels are ready to sell marijuana cheaper."
Immediately after cannabis retailers opened their doors in Colorado in January, NBC News reported that the price had soared to $400 per ounce, not including taxes. The network noted that "the state does not impose any pricing structure for pot purveyors, leaving the market open to supply and demand," and quoted several legislators and cannabis experts who agreed that the creation of black markets was inevitable. Leonhart argues that Mexican drug cartels will be among the marketeers.
Leonhart rejected the argument that legalization in the U.S. would collapse the Mexican cartels and put them out of business, calling the claim specious. "Absolutely not," she said. "Saying legalization will destroy the cartels reveals a complete lack of understanding of how these organizations operate." Leonhart testified that medical marijuana dispensaries in Colorado are already receiving some of their inventories from Mexican producers, although she did not offer details.
Her statements coincided with a January 2013 report by the U.S. Justice Dept., which said Mexican drug cartels now operate in more than a thousand U.S. cities.
More than 20 U.S. states now permit cannabis use for its alleged therapeutic properties, and others are considering amending their laws to do likewise. But marijuana in any quantity and for any purpose remains flatly prohibited by federal law, which classifies it as a Schedule I drug - together with heroin, LSD and amphetamines - under the U.S. Controlled Substances Act. Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court has twice ruled that alleged "medical necessity" is not a defense to marijuana manufacturing and distribution, and that Congress may criminalize the production and use of home-grown cannabis even if states have approved it for medicinal purposes.
State laws like Colorado's and Washington's are thus invalid. But last August Attorney General Eric Holder notified the governors of both that the Justice Dept. would take no action against them, a move praised by one powerful U.S. senator who has been particularly outspoken in his criticism of the drug war efforts of Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D. Vt.) said the federal government should "respect the will of the states whose people have voted to legalize small amounts of marijuana for personal and medical use." Just weeks before Leahy had voted to temporarily close the purse on Mexican drug war assistance. Sen. Patrick Leahy blocks $95M in Mérida Initiative funds. Some here view Leahy's posture as very hypocritical.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who serves on the appropriations subcommittee, said Wednesday that the Obama administration's refusal to enforce federal laws which unquestionably trump those of Colorado and Washington will have "devastating consequences for the country down the road," especially if more states decide to follow suit. Leonhart agreed, adding that voters in those two states had been deceived about the purported benefits of marijuana legalization, such as enhanced tax revenues and the freeing up of law enforcement personnel to fight more serious crimes.
In sharp contrast to the United States there is little national support for drug legalization in Mexico, even marijuana. In May 2013 president Peña Nieto said he is opposed to legalization as a quick fix for the country's security problems, and a November 2012 public opinion survey indicated that 79% of Mexicans agree. An August 2013 poll on Mexican attitudes towards marijuana legalization published by Sinembargo.com, a liberal media source, reported that 49.6% were opposed, while 13.4% were in favor. Some drug war experts argue decriminalization would exacerbate cartel rivalries, by enabling them to focus all their energies on eliminating competitors. In February Jalisco's chief prosecutor said he was "strongly against" legal cannabis, arguing it would turn the state into a center for drug tourism and increase crime. The prominent leader of Mexico's ultra-Left, a presidential candidate in 2006 and again in 2012, has also spoken out against marijuana legalization efforts in the Federal District.
Sept. 19 - Mexican drug cartels are also taking advantage of the surge in demand for heroine in the United States, DEA Leonhart told a House subcommittee this week. They supply a purer product at lower prices than competitors, she testified.
May 17 - Survey: Mexicans remain overwhelmingly opposed to marijuana legalization, by 70% margin
Apr. 30 - Senior American military commanders call U.S. drug policy hypocritical
Apr. 6 - Legalize marijuana, and put Mexican drug traffickers in charge
Dec. 17 - Who is committed to the drug war?
Mar. 15 - U.S. splits over marijuana, but Kansas says it's still illegal in the Sunflower State
Jan. 13 - Mexican drug cartels operate in 1,286 U.S. cities
Dec. 7 - Mexicans dominate marijuana growing in U.S. - including in national parks, forests
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