As more states sharing a border with Mexico legalize cannabis, illegal drug cartels south of the border are being forced to change their patterns to make up for lost revenue.
Since the legalization of cannabis in California, Arizona and New Mexico, Texas has taken the lead as the state seizing the most illicit marijuana coming across the border. Cartels historically used highways connecting Mexico to California and Arizona to smuggle illegal marijuana into the country. But in the years since both states legalized the drug, cartels have shifted to Texas to find a market where their products are more valuable.
In the last decade, cannabis seizures along the U.S.-Mexico border have dropped dramatically—from nearly 1,350 metric tons in 2013 to around 70 metric tons in 2022, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
As advocates predicted, cannabis legalization in the U.S. has seriously damaged the cartels’ profit intake. As more states move to legalize marijuana, crime lords have been forced to pivot to new products and new markets.
Since Texas is now the only state along the border that still has cannabis prohibition in place, cartels have targeted it as the place to pedal their pot. Texas also serves as an excellent conduit to other states that still maintain prohibition laws like Kansas and Tennessee. In 2021, CBP reported that agents along the Texas border seized around 80 metric tons of illicit cannabis while only around 20 metric tons were seized in both Arizona and California combined.
According to CBP, Arizona seized around 5 metric tons of cannabis in 2022, a major decrease from the 450 metric tons that was seized in 2012. In California, border patrol agents only seized about half a ton of cannabis in 2022. Over 450 metric tons of marijuana were seized in the Rio Grande Valley and Laredo sectors of eastern Texas between 2018 and 2022.
This change in route patterns is a direct result of cannabis legalization in New Mexico and other western states. As legal adult-use markets open, users are less likely to purchase black market cannabis. Those that do end up buying illicit cannabis that’s grown in the U.S. more often than not.
But it’s still unclear what the net effect will be on cartel operations. Advocates have long claimed that marijuana legalization would do irreparable damage to drug lords in Central America and Mexico, and the massive routing shift that has happened seems to support that theory.
But Mexico’s Defense Department says that cartels have merely turned their focus to other, more harmful illegal drugs. In 2021 Defense Secretary Gen. Luis Cresencio Sandoval said that seizures of the synthetic opioid fentanyl rose 525 percent between 2018 and 2021, compared to the amount of seizures made between 2016 and 2018. Seizures of methamphetamine have reportedly doubled in the same time period.