Marijuana has long been one of the most profitable illicit crops in various parts of rural Mexico, and one of the most important revenue generators for Mexican drug trafficking organizations. It is intimately linked to the origins of these criminal groups, who became the leading suppliers of a lucrative marijuana market in the United States. The trade also became a focal point of an often-tense bilateral relationship between the United States and Mexico.

That era appears to be over. Today, most of the marijuana consumed in the United States is produced domestically, largely due to ongoing legalization and decriminalization efforts in several states. These shifts have changed the game in the international drug market, particularly in the Western Hemisphere. They struck at the core of some of the region’s most notorious organized crime groups and gouged Mexican marijuana prices. Beyond those economic issues, the changes may have permanently altered the once-symbiotic relationship between the criminal groups and their long-time social base.

*This article is the first in a four-part investigation, “The End of (Illegal) Marijuana: What It Means for Criminal Dynamics in Mexico,” diving into how the legalization of marijuana in a growing number of US states is impacting organized crime dynamics in Mexico. Read the full investigation here.

At the same time, marijuana has become far less of a priority for law enforcement on both sides of the border. Today, authorities are increasingly focused on the trafficking of synthetic drugs, which are rapidly replacing plant-based drugs. Marijuana seizures in Mexico and at the US-Mexico border have steadily declined over the past decade, and the Mexican army is eradicating fewer marijuana plantations every year.

This report aims to analyze what this means on the ground for Mexican organized crime groups and illustrate how they have adapted to these changes. It paints a picture of how criminal governance and the relationship with traditional farming communities has evolved and highlights strategies that large drug trafficking organizations may use to address the market shifts.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of the US-Mexico Border

The purpose of this report is to inform policymakers who are looking to address changes in and guide discussions on illicit drug markets, specifically marijuana. We also aim to provide relevant stakeholders with opportunities for intervention in this changing space, such as providing support for the local farming communities that once were at the center of marijuana production in Mexico.

The findings are based on one year of desktop and field research across the Mexican states of Baja California and Sinaloa, as well as Mexico City. It includes dozens of in-person and remote interviews with cannabis cultivators, farmers, entrepreneurs, state and federal government officials, marijuana consumers, activists, security experts, and academics, among others. The team also visited several marijuana dispensaries across major urban centers and traveled through the Sinaloa mountains, the former epicenter of illicit crop production. In addition, we analyzed government data on drug seizures and consumption trends, judicial cases, and previous studies on the topic.

Major Findings

1. In traditional production regions in Mexico, the upheaval of the illicit marijuana industry marks the end of an era for various rural communities that have grown the crop for several generations. This has upended the decades-long, symbiotic relationship between such producers and the organized crime groups reaping the benefits of their production. As a result, some small farmers are moving to other crops, migrating in search of new opportunities, taking advantage of government-funded development programs, or planning for ways to enter a potential legal marijuana business. In this context of economic uncertainty, farming communities still live under the constant threat of violence from criminal groups while no longer securing the type of economic benefits they once did from the drug trade.

2. Criminal groups have found ways to adapt to changes in the international marijuana business, diversifying their operations to capitalize on new markets. First, there are indications that trafficking groups are supplying a small subset of users in the United States that do not yet have access to legal marijuana, while also potentially looking for new international markets to exploit. Second, criminal organizations have taken advantage of the growing domestic market for marijuana in Mexico, which is increasingly becoming more sophisticated as society pushes lawmakers toward outright legalization. Third, Mexican criminal groups are now dominating synthetic drug trafficking into the United States, resulting in greater revenues at a devastating cost for residents on both sides of the border.

3. These seismic shifts provide an opportunity for policymakers to weaken transnational organized crime. With farming communities benefiting less from the drug trade, the current evolution of the relationship they’ve long maintained with criminal groups in these rural regions may now provide an opening for positive intervention. It may also open the door to public campaigns, which could change the traditional “Robin Hood” narrative around drug consumption and production in Mexico. 

*Parker Asmann, Victoria Dittmar, Cecilia Farfán-Méndez, Michael Lettieri, and Marcos Vizcarra contributed reporting to this article.

*This article is the first in a four-part investigation, “The End of (Illegal) Marijuana: What It Means for Criminal Dynamics in Mexico,” diving into how the legalization of marijuana in a growing number of US states is impacting organized crime dynamics in Mexico. Read the full investigation here.

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