Since Jan. 1, Colorado has had a legal marijuana market. The same will soon be true in Washington state, once retail licenses are issued. Other states, such as California and Oregon, will likely follow suit over the next three years.
So does this creeping legalization of marijuana in the United States spell doom for the Mexican drug cartels? Not quite. The illegal marijuana trade provides Mexican organized crime with about $1.5 billion to $2 billion a year. That’s not chump change, but according to a number of estimates, it represents no more than a third of gross drug export revenue. Cocaine is still the cartels’ biggest money-maker.
Moreover, Mexican gangs also obtain income from extortion, kidnapping, theft and various other types of illegal trafficking. Losing the marijuana trade would be a blow to their finances, but it certainly wouldn’t put them out of business.
Whatever the legal status of marijuana, Mexico needs to tackle its many institutional malfunctions. Its police forces are underpaid, undertrained, undermotivated and deeply vulnerable to corruption and intimidation. Its criminal justice system is painfully slow, notoriously inefficient and deeply unfair. Even with almost universal impunity, prisons are overflowing and mostly ruled by the inmates themselves.
Changing that reality will take years. Some reforms are underway, some are barely off the ground. The reformist zeal that President Enrique Pena Nieto has shown in other policy areas is absent in security and justice. Security policy remains reactive, driven more by political considerations than by strategic design.
Marijuana legalization won’t alter that dynamic. In the final analysis, Mexico doesn’t have a drug problem, much less a marijuana problem: It has a state capacity problem.
Even if drug trafficking might very well decline in the future, in the absence of stronger institutions, something equally nefarious will replace it.Alejandro Hope is a security policy analyst at IMCO, a Mexico City research organization, and a former intelligence officer. He writes for Bloomberg News.