The ongoing legalization of marijuana at the state level in the United States has forced organized crime groups in Mexico to adapt and look for new markets while also shifting drug trafficking routes along the US-Mexico border.
Marijuana seizures along this border, which stretches nearly 2,000 miles, have fallen dramatically in recent years, from just under 1,350 metric tons in FY2013 to around 70 metric tons in FY2022, according to US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) statistics.
Arizona and California had long been the two main gateway states for marijuana trafficked into the United States from Mexico due to their proximity to major Mexican cities and the highways connecting them.
However, marijuana trafficking to both states changed significantly after they legalized the drugs — first in California in 2016 and then in Arizona in 2020. Marijuana also became fully legal in New Mexico in 2021. These steps helped in part to reduce the market for illegal Mexican marijuana in these states, which made a large dent in the profits of drug trafficking groups.
Indeed, Border Patrol agents in southern Arizona went from seizing more than 450 metric tons of marijuana in FY2012 to around 5 metric tons in FY2021. Only half a ton of marijuana was seized in FY2022 in California, a tiny fraction of the tens of tons regularly seized by agents in prior years, according to CBP figures.
More recently, Texas has emerged as the state recording the most marijuana seizures, a predictable outcome given that it has not legalized marijuana, is located near other states where the drug remains illegal, and has over two dozen international bridges and border crossings. Over 80 metric tons of marijuana were seized last year along the southern border in Texas, compared to less than 20 metric tons seized in both Arizona and California combined, according to CBP figures.
These seizures have been concentrated mainly in CBP’s Rio Grande Valley and Laredo sectors of eastern Texas. Over 450 metric tons of marijuana were seized in both sectors between 2018 and 2022, according to CBP figures.
InSight Crime Analysis
Following the legalization of marijuana in Arizona, California, and New Mexico, the shift in marijuana trafficking routes towards Texas — the only state on the US-Mexico border to have not yet legalized marijuana in some form — is a logical decision by Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations.
Trafficking marijuana through Texas is now the path of least resistance for drug trafficking organizations trying to reach US consumers without legal access to marijuana. From main production areas such as the so-called Golden Triangle — long a key region for cannabis cultivation where the northern states of Chihuahua, Durango, and Sinaloa meet — Mexico’s federal Highway 40 serves as a near direct trafficking route to the state of Texas. Transport groups then have a convenient pathway to states such as Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee, all of which have yet to legalize marijuana.
And while drug trafficking groups have shifted marijuana smuggling routes to recoup lost profits, among other strategies, they have also expanded into the rapidly growing and highly lucrative synthetic drug market. This diversification into the mass production and trafficking of methamphetamine and the synthetic opioid fentanyl, a multibillion-dollar market in the United States, has more than made up for any significant losses brought on by marijuana legalization.
To be sure, almost 83 metric tons of methamphetamine were seized along the US-Mexico border in FY2021, compared to less than 40 metric tons in 2018. At the same time, seizures of illicit fentanyl increased by more than 640% between 2018 and 2022, according to CBP data.
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