As journalists filmed Mexican soldiers burning a record-breaking 300-acre field of marijuana earlier this month, they learned the old lesson of these public displays — you don't actually get high from all the smoke. The plants would have to be more mature and fully dried out to release their active psychedelic properties, and all the fumes waft straight up to the clouds rather than into your lungs. Consequently soldiers here happily burn marijuana plantations in front of the cameras every week and still stay sober enough to shoot back at irate gangsters. The war on drugs of President Felipe Calderón is shown on TV in clouds of green smoke.
But while the marijuana bonfires demonstrate how the Mexican government is constantly hitting drug cartels, they also illustrate how colossal Mexico's marijuana industry is. The 300-acre plantation was busted in the Baja California desert 200 miles south of San Diego on July 14. Soldiers say a single harvest could yield 120 tons of cannabis, worth some $160 million. It had a sophisticated irrigation system to water plants that sprang up to 2.5 yards high alongside kitchens, bathrooms and sleeping quarters for 60 workers. Close by in Tijuana, soldiers made another mega bust in October when they seized 134 metric tons of vacuum-packed marijuana stacked into tractor trailers. That stash was so big it filled an entire parking lot and unleashed a particularly apocalyptic-looking blaze.
(See pictures of a giant marijuana plantation in Mexico.)
These fires all add heat to the simmering debate about marijuana laws raging north of the border. In November, just after the Tijuana bust, Proposition 19 to legalize marijuana narrowly missed being approved in California. This month as the 300-acre farm burned in Baja, petitioners have been collecting signatures for a similar referendum to legalize marijuana in Colorado. In both cases, campaigners have cited the Mexican conflict as a reason to change U.S. drug laws. American ganja smokers are giving billions to psychotic Mexican drug cartels, they argue, and legalization is the only way to stop the war. It is a compelling argument. But is it true?
Drug policy reform continues to be a highly contentious debate on both sides of the Rio Grande. Several former Latin American presidents including Mexico's Vicente Fox and Ernesto Zedillo support a change in policy, specifically legalization in Mexico. "We have to take all the production chain out of the hands of criminals and into the hands of producers," Fox told TIME in a recent interview. "So there are farmers that produce marijuana and manufacturers that process it and distributors that distribute it and shops that sell it." In this vision, marijuana could be a niche Mexican industry akin to tequila. However, President Calderón stands firmly against legalization, saying it would make more kids get high and commit crime. "If it is legalized... it would completely liberate the drug market and spark a reduction in price, which are factors that will drive millions of young people to consume drugs," he said in the lead up to the California vote.
(Watch "Aerial Drug Bust at the Mexican Border.")
Politicians and pundits are equally divided about the physical effect on Mexican drug cartels if Colorado or California take the plunge and legalize marijuana. A core problem is that as the trade is illegal, no one really knows how much weed Mexican farmers raise or Americans devour in smoke-filled college dorms. Back in 1997, the U.S. drug tsar's office estimated Mexican marijuana yields based on air sightings and speculated that cartels made 60% of their income — or some $20 billion annually — from cannabis. However, last year a Rand Corporation study challenged this wisdom by estimating American marijuana consumption, concluding that Mexican gangsters only make $1.1 billion to $2 billion in the green racket. The truth is that neither can be certain about their numbers.
Mexican traffickers have also morphed into criminal cartels with a broad portfolio of businesses. As well as smuggling marijuana, cocaine, heroin and crystal meth they make money from kidnapping, human smuggling, running guns, stealing crude oil, product piracy, business extortion and any other devious rackets they can come up with. Legalizing marijuana would destroy only one division of their empires.
(See pictures of Culiacán, the home of Mexico's drug-trafficking industry.)
However, policy reformists point out that whatever the exact numbers, everyone agrees that Mexican gangsters are making billions of dollars selling marijuana to American smokers. "There is no doubt that marijuana legalization would hurt Mexican gangsters in their pocket books," says Tom Angell, spokesman for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a U.S. group against the war on drugs. Mexico has seven major cartels who are all involved in marijuana growing and smuggling. The profits of the green help them finance paramilitary death squads that have claimed 40,000 victims since 2006. Some of the violence can be directly linked to the marijuana trade. Following the Tijuana bust in October, gunmen murdered 13 recovering addicts at a rehab center — one for each ten tons of seized weed — apparently to try and make the government back off. Mexican cartels commit murder over the business precisely because it is so important to them. Legalization could arguably take away more gangster profits than the DEA and Mexican army have managed in decades. It might not kill the Mexican cartels, but it would certainly hurt them.
If Colorado or California were to legalize marijuana though, there would be a legal can of worms. Federal agents may still bust marijuana dealers in those states, and the United Nations could castigate the U.S. for failing to uphold its treaty obligations to fight drugs. Policy reformists such as Angell, however, argue that a "yes" vote in a marijuana referendum would be a first step toward a historic change in drug policy. If marijuana was beings sold legally in shops north of the Rio Grande, Mexican authorities would be much less eager to spark up more bonfires of captured weed. "Politicians across the United States and in Latin America would become emboldened to change their own marijuana laws," Angell said. "It is a vote that will be heard across the world."