So Mexican Cartels Are Growing Weed on Washington Tribal Lands. What's the Solution?

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The Seattle Times reports today on a scourge plaguing the pristine forests of Washington: Mexican drug cartels are cultivating vast marijuana plantations in remote areas of the state's largest Indian reservations. Reporter Amy Harris interviewed DEA agents, members of the State Patrol's Narcotics Division, federal prosecutors, and various other law-enforcement officials, all of whom pontificated on the seriousness of the problem and pointed to the untold time and resources spent eradicating thousands of pot plants as proof that the government is doing its darnedest to win the war on drugs. Never mentioned, of course, is the fact that the entire effort is futile.

Well, that's not entirely accurate. In the last paragraph of the story, Matt Haney, chief of police for the Colville Tribe, is quoted as saying, "Until somehow we figure out how these operations are organized, we'll always be one step behind . . . We have to get into the organizations so that we can get ahead of them."

In other words, the current law-enforcement strategy--wander around the woods until a grow-op is discovered, destroy the plants, arrest the lowest-level guy in the operation doing the gardening--is completely and utterly pointless. It will do nothing to stop cartels from continuing to grow weed on public lands, not to mention smuggle the stuff across the border.

Nevertheless, the raw numbers touted by the feds sound impressive when put in print. According to the Times' story, "In 2010, almost 82,000 marijuana plants were seized on Washington's tribal lands--nearly one-quarter of the 322,320 plants hauled in by law enforcement throughout the entire state," and "The number of marijuana plants found on tribal lands last year was more than nine times the number seized six years ago, according to the State Patrol."

It's true that the waste left by the illicit pot growers and the chemicals they use to cultivate their crops can devastate forest land. Harris notes that the National Park Service estimates that, for every acre of forest planted with marijuana, 10 acres are damaged.

But the big picture perspective is that the cartels' presence in Washington forests is itself a symptom of marijuana prohibition. Officials in Harris' story boast that they've tightened border security, making it (slightly) more difficult to smuggle pot in from Canada and Mexico. The cartels have simply decided it's more profitable to produce their product closer to the consumer.

Last week at Seattle Weekly's "Toke Signals" forum, former U.S. Attorney John McKay argued that current pot laws are directly contributing to the raging violence in Mexico, where nearly 40,000 people have been killed since Mexican president Felipe Calderon declared war on the country's powerful cartels in 2006. "We made our bed, now we have to lie in it," McKay said poignantly.

McKay is hardly alone in that belief. In a report from the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, former presidents of Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil argued in favor of marijuana law reform, writing "Prohibitionist policies based on the eradication of production and on the disruption of drug flows as well as on the criminalization of consumption have not yielded the expected results. We are farther than ever from the announced goal of eradicating drugs."

Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to funnel nearly $9 billion annually to the governments of Colombia and Mexico to fight drug traffickers with brute military force. But advocates of reform and legalization say the crime and terror associated with the illicit drug trade would largely end if American marijuana laws are overhauled.

"There is no doubt that marijuana legalization would hurt Mexican gangsters in their pocketbooks," Tom Angell, spokesman for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition told Time Magazine last month.

That perspective, however, was nowhere to be found in Harris' story. Reached by phone this morning, she explained why.

"It was honestly just a space issue," Harris says. "We wanted to address the fact that this is such a big problem on tribal land and the State Patrol said this was the front line . . . I definitely do think about balanced reporting, but for this, the story itself I was trying to write was more just laying out the problem and how law enforcement was dealing with it. It's an important question to ask if the enforcement is being effective, but I think that's the subject of a follow-up article."

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