Legalization is not the solution to the black market in marijuana

Californians who opened their voter guides for the state elections of 1983 were able to read a speech by supporters of the Proposition 19, an initiative aimed at legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. The argument: “the ban created a violent criminal market run by international drug cartels.” Advocates promised that, “By controlling marijuana, Proposition 19 will help cut funding to cartels.” Although voters did not approve Proposition 19 that year, advocates returned six years later with a more focused initiative, supported for a similar rationale — in short, that legalization “creates a legal and safe system for adult marijuana use” in California. This time, voters agreed and the recreational use of marijuana became legal in the state.

California has yet to see its black market disappear, however. In fact, the illegal cultivation and sale of marijuana has increased so rapidly over the past six years that, earlier this month, Sacramento vastly expanded the state’s war on marijuana, taking a decades-long seasonal commission aimed at curbing illegal cultivation and transforming -a on a full-time, multi-agency task force with the job of quenching a burgeoning black market. California is also not the only one to see its black market explode after legalization. In Oregon, where recreational marijuana became legal in 2015, authorities now estimate that thousands of illicit marijuana farms operate in the southern part of the state, where the shootings between rivals have become common. Despite legalization in 2016, more than two-thirds of marijuana transactions in Massachusetts occur on the black market, state officials estimate. Meanwhile, Mexican cartels and other foreign gangs have moved into business in Colorado – another of the 19 states that have created a market legal for recreational marijuana.

Proponents of marijuana legalization now argue that the real way to kill the black market for marijuana is Congressional legislation to allow recreational sale and use throughout the country. But there is little evidence that they are right.

The notion that legalization would end the often violent crime around drug markets, including the marijuana business, dates back to less than the years 80 when President Jimmy Carter endorsed national legislation to end criminal penalties for marijuana. The waves of violent crime and addiction that emerged from the cocaine epidemic of that era, however, effectively ended conversations about drug legalization, even for marijuana, which was linked in some studies to later cocaine use.

It took more than 20 years for supporters to find another path to legalization – in the case of marijuana, through the so-called medical marijuana as an analgesic for seriously ill people. California has led the way with legislation 1996 establishing a legal market for medical marijuana. Other states followed suit. Despite limited evidence of marijuana’s medical value and doubts among many physicians about its usefulness, the momentum created by the medical marijuana movement eventually led to today’s growing passion for the legalization of recreational marijuana.

The real message we should have gotten from medical marijuana was quite different. Shortly after voters approved medical marijuana in 1996, California’s black market began to expand. An NPR article from 1983 on the rapid growth of illegal sales cited a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent [Administração de Repressão às Drogas] who tracked the “boom cultivation” of illicit marijuana in the Golden State until the legalization of 1996 for medical use. Federal agents said so much illegal marijuana was being grown in California under legal marijuana coverage that the product was being shipped to every state. Overworked agents had problems simply trying to keep track of what was grown legally and what was grown illegally.

Instead of hitting the pause button because of these problems, many states went ahead with the full recreational legalization, spurring what Politico called “one of the most confusing paradoxes of the legalized marijuana movement: states with some of the biggest legal markets are also dealing with rampant illegal production—and the problem is getting worse.”

Opponents of legalization say the problem is not so confusing. The wave of legalization, triggered by state medical marijuana legislation, has given marijuana a patina of respectability, without subjecting the drug to the same scrutiny and approval process that prescription drugs must go through. This movement normalized the use of marijuana, increasing demand. At the same time, many producers and sellers refused to adhere to state regulations and pay taxes and fees on their products. In California, for example, producers tried to circumvent environmental regulations that all farms must observe, including those relating to water use. Investigators have found miles of complex, illegal irrigation systems in the state’s national forests, diverting hundreds of thousands of gallons of water daily to illegal farms as streams dry up. These methods allowed illegal growers to create and market a product at a much lower price than legal marijuana.

At first, authorities in some states were reluctant to prepare for a new war on drugs, but that is changing. Earlier this month, California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced that the state was creating a new year-round effort to eradicate illegal marijuana cultivation, expanding a program started in 1983, when marijuana was illegal and the black market was much smaller. The joint effort involves seven state and federal agencies, including the California National Guard. The effort is a response to press reports of Mexican cartels and other international gangs infiltrating the booming business – accompanied by increased violence, including the killing of illegal and traveling workers imported into the state to work in these marijuana operations.

In Oregon, where rising black market crime has become an election issue, Governor Kate Brown convened a special legislative session late last year to address the issue. Lawmakers approved $19 million to support agencies fighting the black market, including money to investigate the growing theft of natural resources like water by illegal farms. Officials say buyers from at least 20 foreign countries have invaded southern Oregon to buy farmland. In just one week this year, authorities reported the seizure of illegal farms run by Bulgarian and Argentine gangs. Meanwhile, residents of Oregon’s once quiet rural communities say they are beset by violence and often left unprotected because police resources have been overwhelmed.

Legalization advocates say that the black market problem is confined to rural areas in some agricultural states. But in Colorado, the problem has been suburbanized. A multi-year investigation by federal and state authorities led to the seizure of about 250 homes and businesses, mostly in suburban Denver, where the investigators destroyed more than 80.000 potted plants and confiscated about $2.2 million in cash. Some of those arrested were Chinese nationals who came to the Denver area, bought suburban homes and used the basements for a coordinated cultivation program. They then used social media accounts to launder the money from their sales back to China.

Legalization advocates claim that the root of the black market problem lies in states that refused to legalize marijuana. These jurisdictions, the argument goes, are the ones driving sharp increases in illegal cultivation that takes root in legal states. It’s a topic that, unsurprisingly, the press picked up on; Local stories about the new black market suggest the blame lies with places that still ban the sale of marijuana. That argument is also fueling a new push for national legalization, embodied by a bill introduced by New York Senator Charles Schumer in July to make marijuana legal across the country. In lobbying for the bill, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden cited his home state’s black market struggles as an example of “why federal cannabis prohibition just isn’t working.” Advocates are banking on polls that show the majority of Americans are now in favor, at the very least, of decriminalizing marijuana.

On the other hand, Schumer’s bill also contains new federal law enforcement funds to help states end the black market that advocates promised would disappear with legalization. It seems that, one way or another, we have a new drug war on our hands.

©2022 City Journal. Published with permission. Original in English.

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