While domestic production surges, trafficking from south of the border flourishes
Despite surging domestic production and the proliferation of medical dispensaries, Mexican traffickers still dominate a flourishing American marijuana market that yields the violent drug cartels as much as $2 billion a year.
Marijuana "continues to serve as the cash cow of the drug cartels in Mexico," said Rusty Payne, spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Although super-strength homegrown marijuana has become the weed of choice in California and some of the 14 other states allowing marijuana for medical purposes, less-potent Mexican "commercial" grade marijuana remains dominant in much of the U.S.
At least a third of marijuana consumed in the U.S. is grown domestically, while a minimum of 40 to 50 percent comes from Mexico, a RAND Corp. analysis concluded last year. Although dwarfed by cocaine sales, marijuana still accounts for between 15 and 26 percent of the Mexican drug cartels' revenues, the report said.
It estimated Mexican traffickers' marijuana revenues at between $1.1 billion and $2 billion annually.
The amount of marijuana seized along the entire Southwest border jumped 44 percent between 2005 and 2009, federal statistics show.
As it is in other realms, New York is a melting pot when it comes to marijuana. Potent greenhouse marijuana grown in Canada appears to be the most commonly available strain in upstate New York, according to James Burns, the Albany-based Drug Enforcement Administration agent in charge of DEA operations along New York's border with Canada.
But the Albany area also has served as a transit point for Mexican marijuana arriving in tractor trailers that is then offloaded for shipment to Boston and elsewhere in New England, he said.
And although New York lacks the quasi-legal medical marijuana infrastructure that has spurred growing in areas such as Northern California's "Emerald Triangle," that hasn't stopped drug entrepreneurs from trafficking California imports.
In one highly publicized case, mountain bike racer Melissa "Missy" Giove, once known as ''the missile,'' pleaded guilty in 2009 to involvement in a massive trafficking operation that brought marijuana from California eastward.
She was arrested after police intercepted a Giove courier carrying 350 pounds of marijuana and set up what drug agents call a "controlled delivery." Agents observed Giove meet the courier and take the wheel near Albany International Airport. They arrested her and a co-conspirator, Eric Canori, at Canori's home in Wilton.
New York City is one of the nation's premier marijuana markets and sees everything from Canadian and Mexican pot to cannabis plants growing inside otherwise empty New York apartments, according to DEA spokeswoman Erin McKenzie-Mulvey.
In one 2007 case, agents seized 700 plants, each 3 to 4 feet high, from an apartment in Upper Manhattan. They had a combined street value over $2.8 million.
In addition to California, 14 states plus the District of Columbia now have laws permitting marijuana use for medicinal purposes. One of those states, New Jersey, approved its law in 2010.
Medical marijuana seems unlikely to get approved in the New York state Legislature anytime soon, especially with the state Senate in Republican control. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has admitted smoking pot in his youth, said during the campaign that he does not favor such a law, explaining: "The dangers of medical marijuana outweigh the benefits."
The government's 2010 National Drug Threat Assessment states that while the quantity of domestically produced marijuana is unknown, drug agents' eradication of marijuana plants more than doubled between 2003 and 2008. "The amount of marijuana produced in the United States appears to be very high," the report concludes.
California has permitted marijuana use for medical purposes since 1996. Last year, voters there defeated Proposition 19, which would have fully legalized marijuana in the state.
During the campaign over Proposition 19, the impact of potential legalization on the Mexican cartels and drug-related violence in Mexico was a matter of vigorous debate. Those in favor of Prop-19 argued that legalization would undercut the price structure that makes marijuana smuggling profitable for Mexican traffickers.
Those opposed, including law enforcement groups, countered that cartels were in it for the money and would not let legalization deter them from finding and exploiting U.S. markets.
But there has been relatively little examination of the impact of medical marijuana -- and the black market that domestic growers also service -- on the Mexican marijuana trade.
In California and other medical marijuana states, the uptick in domestic cultivation has created a bifurcated market of connoisseurs with the money to afford high-test grades sold in dispensaries or the illicit market, and more frugal consumers willing to sacrifice potency for price.
"People smoke (Mexican marijuana) because it's cheap, not because it's any good," said Mark Kleiman, professor of public policy at UCLA.
Medical marijuana has given rise to a virtual agribusiness of growers and suppliers producing genetically engineered strains targeted at consumers' perceived needs.
In dispensary literature and on the Web, some varieties are described as strong enough to produce "ouch lock," and are recommended for nighttime pain relief. Others are said to be less heavy, more appropriate for daytime use, and helpful for headaches and "social anxiety."
Consumers "in effect have become folk scientists on what works best for them," said Craig Reinarman, chairman of the sociology department at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
By DAN FREEDMAN Times Union Washington Bureau
Published 12:35 a.m., Monday, February 28, 2011
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