Legal Pot In The U.S. May Be Undercutting Mexican Marijuana : Parallels As more U.S. states approve marijuana for medical or recreational use, the price for pot growers in Mexico is falling. This could change the business model for narcotraffickers as well.

Legal Pot In The U.S. May Be Undercutting Mexican Marijuana

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Made-in-America marijuana is on a roll. Last month voters in Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia approved the recreational use of marijuana. That means the nation's capital along with more than half of the States now allow pot for fun or medical purposes. One argument made by the pro-legalization camp is that buying domestic marijuana undercuts Mexican cartel marijuana. Increasingly, that appears to be the case.

NPR's John Burnett traveled to the Golden Triangle, Mexico's marijuana heartland and reports that U.S.-grown marijuana is hurting traditional growers.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The black SUV bounces along a rocky road in rural Sinaloa state. We're about a half-hour outside the capital of Culiacan and really, what else are you going to sing on your way to a Mexican marijuana farm than a narco-corrido?

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing in Spanish).

BURNETT: Soon we cross a river where yellow butterflies alight on the mud and vines festoon the gallery forest. In a few more minutes, we're hiking up a sloping field planted with edible Nepal cactus. When the path disappears, we bushwhack down the other side through thick vegetation.

We're going down a pretty steep incline here.

After 10 more minutes we step into clearing and there they are - hundreds of knee-high marijuana plants, their serrated leaves quivering in a warm Pacific breeze.

Well, here we are. It smells a little skunky. The 24-year-old grower, Nabor, declines to give his surname because this is illegal. He wears flip-flops, jeans and a torn pullover shirt and has a wide amiable face, but he doesn't have a lot of good news these days.

NABOR: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: Two or three years ago, a kilogram of marijuana was worth 60-$90, he says, but now they're paying us $30 or $40 a kilo. It's a big difference. If the U.S. continues to legalize pot, they'll run us into the ground. Nabor kneels and proudly shows me the resinous buds on his short stocky plants. This strain of marijuana is called Chronic. It's a favorite among growers for its easy cultivation, fast flowering and mood-lifting high. Nabor says he's grown cannabis since he was 14.

NABOR: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: My boss pays me $150 a month but have to plant it exactly the way he wants, Nabor says. He provides the water pump, the gasoline, the irrigations hoses, fertilizer, everything.

NABOR: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: There's an image of Mexican traffickers, with their shiny pickups, fancy boots and lots of girlfriends, but Nabor says most marijuana growers for the Sinaloa cartel are just campesinos like him. He drives a motorcycle and supports a wife and two kids. He says he grows pot to supplement his other income collecting firewood and raising cactus. He says everybody plants a little marijuana here in La Sierra.

NABOR: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: This is dangerous work to cultivate it and to sell it, he says. If the Army comes, you have to run or they'll grab you. Look here - we're getting $40 a kilo. The day we get $20 a kilo, it'll get to the point where we just won't plant marijuana anymore.

The slumping economics of Mexican marijuana was not unexpected. Two years ago the Mexican Institute of Competitiveness, in a study entitled "If Our Neighbors Legalize" predicted the drug cartels would see their cannabis profits plummet 22 to 30 percent if the United States continued to decriminalize marijuana. Remember at one time virtually all the weed smoked in the States itself, from Acapulco gold to Colombian red, came from south of the border. Not anymore. Lieutenant David Socha works in the narcotics section of the Austin Police Department in a town that enjoys a good buzz.

DAVID SOCHA: We're still seeing marijuana, but it's almost all the homegrown stuff here from the States, you know, from Canada, all that stuff. It's just not the compressed marijuana from Mexico that we see.

DANIEL VINKOVETSKY: My name is Daniel Vinkovetsky and I'm the senior cultivation editor of High Times magazine. American pot smokers prefer American, domestically-grown marijuana to Mexican-grown marijuana. We've seen a ton of evidence of this in the last decade or so.

BURNETT: U.S.-grown marijuana - some of it cultivated in high-tech greenhouses - is three or four times more expensive than Mexican marijuana. Vinkovetsky says prices for Mexican weed continue to slide because it's so much weaker. He says American cannabis typically has 10 to 20 percent THC, the ingredient that makes a person high, whereas the THC content of so-called Mexican brick weed is typically three to 8 percent.

LAWRENCE PAYNE: Mexican marijuana is considered to be of poor quality generally because it's grown in bulk outdoors. It's typically dried, but not really cured, which is something we do here in the U.S. with connoisseur-quality cannabis and it's also bricked up, meaning that it's compressed for sale in packaging and in order to get it over the border efficiently.

BURNETT: In order to service the U.S. market, police agencies report that some Mexican crime groups grow marijuana in public lands in the West and there's a new intriguing development. DEA spokesman Lawrence Payne tells NPR that Sinaloa operatives in the United States are reportedly buying high-potency American marijuana in Colorado and smuggling it back into Mexico for sale to high-paying customers. It makes sense, Payne says. We know the cartels are already smuggling cash into Mexico. If you can buy some really high-quality weed here, why not smuggle it South too and sell it at a premium? The big question is whether the loss of market share is actually hurting the violent Mexican drug mafias.

JAVIER VALDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: (Translating) The Sinaloa cartel has demonstrated in many instances that it can adapt. I think it's in a process of redefinition toward marijuana.

Javier Valdez is a respected journalist and author who writes books on the narco culture in Sinaloa. Valdez says he's heard through the grapevine that marijuana planting has dropped 30 percent in La Sierra of Sinaloa, but he says the Sinaloa cartel is old-school. They stick to drugs even as other cartels such as the vicious Zetas of Tamaulipas state have branched out into kidnapping and extortion.

VALDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: I believe that now because of the changes they're having to make because of marijuana legalization in the U.S., Valdez continues, the cartel is pushing more cocaine, meth and heroin. They're diversifying.

Back in the hills above Culiacan, Nabor is asked if prices for marijuana keep declining, what will he do?

NABOR: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: My dream is to get a good job, a regular job, he answers, where I don't have to do such dangerous work, a job that pays me a living wage. When the interview is over and my recorder is turned off and we're about to drive back to the highway, Nabor quietly says he thinks he's done with marijuana. He's considering planting opium poppies because that's where the market is going.

John Burnett, NPR News.

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