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The ballot initiative to legalize, tax, and sell marijuana for recreational use in Washington was the subject of a hearing before state lawmakers

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Would Legalizing Marijuana in Washington Put Mexican Drug Cartels Out of Business?

Cartel pot 150x120.jpg
Image Source
The ballot initiative to legalize, tax, and sell marijuana for recreational use in Washington was the subject of a hearing before state lawmakers yesterday in Olympia, but, intriguingly, much of the debate about I-502 focused on the impact that allowing retail sales of pot might have on Mexican drug cartels.

Among those offering testimony in support of the ballot initiative were former U.S. Attorney John McKay, and Seattle's former FBI bureau chief Charles Mandigo, both affiliated with the political action committee New Approach Washington. McKay called marijuana prohibition "a tremendous failure," and said the American black market for pot, "creates an enormous flow of money to international drug cartels, criminals and thugs."

McKay, an outspoken critic of the nation's marijuana laws since leaving office in 2006, estimated that "billions of dollars" worth of marijuana travels down I-5 annually from British Columbia, where the drug market is controlled by Hells Angels and Asian gangsters. He also referenced mass graves and beheadings in Mexico, and noted that more than 50,000 people have been killed since 2008 when president Felipe Calderon declared war on his country's powerful cartels.

According to official estimates, marijuana sales account for 60 percent of cartel profits, about $60 billion annually. Yesterday, Mandigo posited that the money fuels the violence in Mexico, which is "spilling over into our country."

"Take away the money, you take away the criminal element," Mandigo said. "And if you take away the criminal element, you take away the turf wars, the violence, the drive-by shootings, and the ongoing killings here in the United States, Mexico, and other countries...I-502 provides the means to remove the money from the criminal groups that traffic in marijuana."

But opponents of the pot legalization push aren't buying those claims. Steve Freng of the Office of National Drug Control Policy noted at the hearing that several Mexican organized crime syndicates -- including the Sinaloa Federation, La Familia, and Los Zetas -- have a presence in Washington, and said "it's silly to think the cartels will pack up and leave the state with their tails between their legs," if voters were to approve I-502 in November.

Opponents of I-502, including some advocates for marijuana law reform, have criticized the initiative for proposing such steep taxes on pot -- 25 percent at each point in the supply chain, from producers, to processors, to retailers, to consumers -- that might allow black market dealers to undercut the state-run dispensaries. (The tax windfall would go toward public health programs, contribute to the state's general fund, and support a variety of other projects.)

Freng suggested that the cartels would simply "adjust their price point," following the passage of I-502, and continue business as usual. Following the hearing, McKay and Mandigo responded by saying that even if state-supplied pot were slightly more expensive, consumers would likely opt to shop legally because it would be safer, and the product would be of higher quality.

So which side is right? Sadly, the issue isn't quite so black and white. This same debate took place two years ago when California was considering pot legalization, and the arguments haven't changed much. Although some experts agreed then that legalization would dilute the market for cartels' primary cash crop, the prevailing opinion was that a single state changing its laws wouldn't be the end of the narcos' transnational business. They would still reap untold billions from sales of other drugs, and from kidnapping, human trafficking, extortion, and their various other rackets.

Nevertheless, two former Mexican presidents -- Ernesto Zedillo, and Vicente Fox -- have publicly advocated drug legalization as an alternative to Calderon's strategy of armed conflict with the cartels. And, on this side of the border, McKay and Mandigo both testified that it is a commonly held belief among high-ranking U.S. law-enforcement officials that the government's war on weed has been an abject failure.

Freng and others are probably right to point out that marijuana legalization in Washington would not be the silver bullet that puts an end to the horrific bloodshed in Mexico. But maintaining the status quo clearly isn't the answer either. Ending pot prohibition would free up a significant amount of jail space, court time and law-enforcement resources, all of which could be used to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate serious criminals -- perhaps even some cartel kingpins -- rather than harmless pot smokers.

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