Study: Calif. Pot Measure May Not Hurt Drug Cartels Proposition 19, the California ballot measure that would legalize marijuana, has provoked debate on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border about how it would affect Mexico's drug cartels. A new study says it would do little to reduce cartel violence; supporters say it would slash cartel profits.
NPR logo

Study: Calif. Pot Measure May Not Hurt Drug Cartels

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Study: Calif. Pot Measure May Not Hurt Drug Cartels


Study: Calif. Pot Measure May Not Hurt Drug Cartels

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

To a proposition now on the ballot in California that would legalize marijuana. Supporters argue that regulating pot will help end drug cartel violence in Mexico. However, a report out today from the Rand Corporation today says that's unlikely. That's because, as the study points out, California's pot market accounts for very little of the cartels' overall revenue.

And as Amy Isackson reports from member station KPBS in San Diego, marijuana is just one of many drugs that lead to border violence.

AMY ISACKSON: The street is quiet. It's in Chula Vista, California. That's about 10 miles from the U.S./Mexico border. The homes are two stories. They look tidy, yet lived in. People here still talk about one afternoon three years ago. That's when the convoy of police SUVs crept into the cul de sac.

Mr. BRANDON PRICE: I was just simply sitting on my couch, and my father told me, look outside. Look outside, there are black cars out there.

ISACKSON: Brandon Price(ph) has vivid memories of that day. He was nine years old. He peeked out the living room window to see what was going on. His dad went outside.

Mr. PRICE: And they pointed a gun at him and told him to get back inside.

ISACKSON: The S.W.A.T. team had surrounded the house across the street. They eventually rescued a 32-year-old Mexican businessman. He'd been kidnapped by a drug gang eight day earlier. Authorities later discovered the gang had killed nine people. It's one example of drug violence tied to Mexican cartels that occasionally flares up around San Diego.

Mr. RICHARD LEE (Marijuana Activist, California Proposition 19): And then if you look at the violence in Mexico, you know, that just can't continue.

ISACKSON: Richard Lee is a marijuana activist and a key backer of Proposition 19 to legalize marijuana in California. He says it's the best way to undermine drug cartels.

Mr. LEE: The strongest argument is to make a first step toward ending the violence in Mexico. It's worse than Iraq and Afghanistan.

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

Dr. DAVID SHIRK (Director, Trans-Border Institute, University of San Diego): 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.

ISACKSON: Joe Garcia is a special agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He says, regardless, pot isn't cartels' meal ticket anymore.

Mr. JOE GARCIA: (Special Agent, Immigration and Customs Enforcement): They've diversified, and there's a larger increase of manufacturing of meth. Eighty percent of what's actually seized by U.S. authorities in the U.S. comes from Mexico.

ISACKSON: Garcia says Proposition 19 wouldn't touch cartels' profits from their other illegal activities.

Mr. GARCIA: Heroin, cocaine, meth, extortion, gun running, bulk cash smuggling, whatever.

ISACKSON: And he says the violence that comes with smuggling those drugs, cash and guns will continue. South of the border, Mexican President Felipe Calderon opposes Prop 19. He says it represents inconsistency. He asks, how can U.S. drug policy demand Mexico crack down on drug trafficking and also encourage consumption, like he says Proposition 19 does?

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

Mr. JORGE RAMOS (Mayor, Tijuana, Mexico): 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.

ISACKSON: 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 Prop 19 opens a new legal market for this marijuana, and Mexican drug groups will cash in.

For NPR News, I'm Amy Isackson in San Diego.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.