Will Legalizing Pot Wipe Out The Black Market? Proposition 19 supporters in California say legalizing recreational pot will put drug traffickers out of business and end the pot wars. But eradicating the black market won't be easy. That's because California is already the nation's biggest producer of marijuana, and by some accounts, the nation's largest exporter of pot.
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Will Legalizing Pot Wipe Out The Black Market?

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Will Legalizing Pot Wipe Out The Black Market?

Will Legalizing Pot Wipe Out The Black Market?

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All right, let's continue our series, this morning, on California's bid to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Proposition 19 would treat pot like alcohol by making it legal for adults and subject to regulation. Supporters of this ballot measure say it would effectively kill the black market. But as Michael Montgomery reports, breaking California's underground trade in marijuana might not be so easy.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: This past summer, dozens of drug agents in paramilitary gear marched into a remote area of northern California, west of the town of Redding. As helicopters swirled over the sun-baked hills, the agents used machetes to chop down more than 10,000 bright green marijuana plants. The plants were then lashed into 500-pound bundles and airlifted out.

For Lieutenant Steve Solus of the Shasta County sheriff's office, this operation was one of dozens of raids on illegal pots farms this year.

Lieutenant STEVE SOLUS: There's lots of water. The growing temperature is just right. The elevations are just right. And the big thing here they have, too, is I-5. It's easy to transport out.

MONTGOMERY: Marijuana seizures like this one are running at record levels in California, having more than tripled since 2005. But drug agents say they are getting only a fraction of the total crop. What's more, with the pot market here saturated, dealers big and small are moving the drug out of state in ever larger quantities, using everything from overnight delivery services to tractor-trailers.

Mr.�BILL RUZZAMENTI: We're seeing more and more of the marijuana cultivated in California being exported where there is a market that will pay more.

MONTGOMERY: Bill Ruzzamenti is a former DEA special agent who heads a regional agency that monitors drug trafficking in California. He says the pot cultivation boom, here, began soon after voters legalized medical marijuana 14 years ago. Now, Ruzzamenti believes, California could be a net exporter.

Mr.�RUZZAMENTI: Literally, we have had shipments of marijuana from California seized in all 50 states, and they're going to where they can maximize their profits.

MONTGOMERY: The surging demand for California-grown pot is good news for some growers and bad news for the drug war. But the trend could challenge a key goal of Proposition 19, wiping out the illegal drug trade.

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Mr.�JOE MCNAMARA: It will generate billions of dollars for local communities, allow police to focus on violent crimes and put drug cartels out of business...

MONTGOMERY: The television spot for Prop 19, featuring former San Jose police chief Joe McNamara, began airing this week. In an interview, McNamara drew parallels to the repeal of alcohol prohibition.

Mr.�MCNAMARA: Al Capone and his bootleg gangsters were shooting up the streets, not because they were drunk on booze. It was for the vast underworld profits. And once alcohol was legalized, it put them out of business as bootleggers. And that's the goal of Prop 19 that would be achieved very quickly.

MONTGOMERY: But opponents argue the black market will survive because the measure won't change federal law or statutes in other states. George Mull heads the California Cannabis Association, a medical marijuana group that opposes Prop 19.

Mr.�GEORGE MULL (California Cannabis Association): There are millions of plants being grown illegally. A lot of it is being sent out of the state. There's no way to think that if Prop 19 passes, those folks are going to register their�grows and then keep all of their plants here in California.

MONTGOMERY: Mull says that's because prices will stay higher in other states where pot remains illegal, leaving in place a premium for smugglers.

Mr.�MULL: There's a great deal of incentive to sell your product where you can get a higher price.

MONTGOMERY: We spoke with more than a dozen growers, from big illegal players to small-scale cultivators, and they agreed that the black market would persist, unless marijuana is legalized nationally. One of them is an illegal dealer who agreed to show us a bunker-like growing facility north of San Francisco.

I'm standing in a large garage that's been retrofitted with vents, fans and swirling air filters. In front of me are several rows of squat marijuana plants. Their buds are about the size of golf balls and the grower here says they're almost ready for harvest.

The man declined to talk for broadcast, but he's grown marijuana illegally for years. He's also acted as a broker to major trafficking groups that ship thousands of pounds of pot out of the state. He says legalization in California would force prices down and probably take many street dealers out of business.

But higher prices for exports would keep other illegal growers and dealers afloat. Where there is demand and big profits to be made, there will always be supply, the man said. But other growers say it's not just money that keeps the black market alive.

Mr.�GABRIEL MARTIN: There is a tradition that we come from here, that is of the cowboy mentality. And that is steeped, and it is very, very deep.

MONTGOMERY: Gabriel Martin is standing outside a small warehouse in the coastal town of Fort Bragg where he runs a legal medical marijuana collective.

On a recent evening, Martin was busy making a batch of hash, which requires mixing marijuana stems and leaves with crushed ice, then filtering the concoction through a washing machine.

Mr.�MARTIN: We have pre-soaked the processed cannabis and the ice and the water, and we are bringing up the water level within the washing machine and...

MONTGOMERY: Martin says many growers, like himself, support Prop 19, because they're willing to trade high profits for a greater sense of security and community. But he says that doesn't mean the underground trade will go away.

Mr.�MARTIN: This is what I tell people. I mean, if you're gonna engage in contraband sales or private sales, as we call them, that market is gonna consistently exist. It's - anywhere you have finance, you're gonna have black market, regardless of what industry it is.

MONTGOMERY: Some California law enforcement officials worry that the black market could grow even stronger, with criminal gangs using legalization as a cover for massive smuggling operations. But Joe McNamara says similar arguments were made against the lifting of alcohol prohibition and they proved wrong. He says marijuana is no different.

Mr. MARTIN: Commercial growers would be regulated. They would be controlled. They'd be subject to law enforcement. And if they were illegally exporting the drug, that would be against California law, as well.

MONTGOMERY: McNamara says he hopes the push for legalization will spread across the country. He says that would make it easier to enforce state regulations. California voters will decide for themselves next week. For NPR News, I'm Michael Montgomery.

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Our story was produced in collaboration with member station KQED and The Center for Investigative Reporting's California Watch. Tomorrow, we'll hear what Mexico thinks about Prop 19 as authorities there battle with violet drug cartels.

INSKEEP: For now we can tell you that Mexican President Felipe Calderon strongly opposes the measure legalizing recreational pot. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Calderon said it would have, quote, "serious consequences for American and Mexican society."

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