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Study: Calif. Pot Measure May Not Hurt Drug Cartels

A new report from the RAND Corporation says that legalizing marijuana in California will not help end Mexican drug cartel violence. The study says California's pot market accounts for only a tiny fraction of the cartels' revenues.

But supporters of Proposition 19, a ballot measure in California to legalize marijuana, say that regulating pot will reduce cartel violence.

According to Richard Lee, a marijuana activist and a key backer of Proposition 19, it's the best way to undermine drug cartels.

"If you look at the violence in Mexico, that just can't continue," Lee says. "The strongest argument is to make a first step toward ending the violence in Mexico. It's worse than Iraq and Afghanistan."

Lee and other Proposition 19 backers say legalizing pot in California will slash cartels' profits. Marijuana has been their cash crop for decades.

Cartel Diversification

But David Shirk, who directs the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, doubts that losing the California market would hurt the drug gangs that much.

"The reality is that you would probably have to legalize the consumption of marijuana throughout the United States -- or in several significantly sized states -- to have any kind of reverberations here in Mexico," says Shirk.

Regardless, pot isn't the cartels' meal ticket anymore, says Joe Garcia, a special agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"They diversified," he says. "There's a larger increase of manufacturing of meth. Eighty percent of what U.S. authorities seize comes from Mexico."

Garcia says Proposition 19 wouldn't touch cartels' profits from their other illegal activities: "Heroin, cocaine, extortion, gun running, bulk cash smuggling, whatever," he says.

And he says the violence that comes with smuggling those drugs, cash and guns will continue.

'Lives And Peace'

South of the border, Mexican President Felipe Calderon opposes Proposition 19. He says it represents inconsistency. For example, Calderon says he wonders how U.S. drug policy can demand Mexico crack down on drug trafficking and also encourage consumption, like he says Proposition 19 does.

Jorge Ramos, mayor of Tijuana, fears Proposition 19 could mean smugglers would pump even more pot through his city to feed California's demand.

"They're going to intensify trying to put marijuana at the other side of the border, and that's cost us a lot of lives and peace here in Tijuana," Ramos says.

Meanwhile, U.S. authorities say Mexican drug trafficking groups are already growing hundreds of tons of marijuana in California, mostly on public lands. Authorities have arrested dozens of Mexican nationals tending these fields. However, they haven't been able to tie them to major Mexican cartels.

Some authorities fear Proposition 19 will open a new legal market for this marijuana, and Mexican drug groups will cash in.

Copyright 2021 KPBS Radio. To see more, visit KPBS Radio.

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