Why Mexican Drug Farmers Won’t Forgo Getting High … on Revenue

Decriminalizing production as well as consumption of marijuana in Mexico has been proposed as a means of reducing the drug-related violence that's ravaged the country for years.

Source Photographs by Deborah Bonello/OZY

Why you should care

Growing hemp might be safer, but the incentive to stick with the high-inducing variety remains strong.

Drugs Go Sober: This Series Examines the Non-High Side of Legalization Drugs Go Sober: This Series Examines the Non-High Side of Legalization

I arrived at Javier’s house in the mountains of Sinaloa after a two-hour drive from Culiacán. It was early February, so the punishing summer humidity had not yet arrived. The sleepy town where Javier lives with his wife and two children is a farming community, and it’s a world away from the brash, urban reality of Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa. 

Violence in Culiacán is so common that the city recently made headlines for having a week with no reported murders. 

Up in the mountains, Javier’s family has survived for generations by selling cannabis and heroin poppy paste to the cartels. As demand for both of those products plummets, could new, legal, non-high-producing plant products be his salvation from looming poverty?

The challenge is to migrate from the illegal cultivation of cannabis and opium to legal forms of cultivation.

Steve Rolles, Transform Drug Policy Foundation

Javier was taught how to cultivate poppy and marijuana by his grandfather, and he and his son grow heroin poppy on a small plot of land an hour’s drive from their home. Outside Javier’s house are a few thigh-high cannabis plants, but he tells me that he stopped focusing on marijuana some years ago — state-level legalization in the United States sent the price of Mexican weed plummeting. Friends of Javier’s who still grow Mexican weed are struggling to sell it, he says; when they do manage to, it goes for a meager $25 per kilo (2.2 pounds).

Poppy was a cash crop until recently, but then the price for that fell too — thanks largely to the fact that American addicts prefer the deadly synthetic fentanyl over heroin, which is made from Javier’s kind of poppies. At the height of the poppy boom, a kilo of opium paste sold for nearly $1,900, but over the past three years, its value has dropped to just $500 in Sinaloa. In other Mexican states, reports suggest farmers are struggling to sell it at all.

 

So, could legalization and industrial cannabis be a good next step for farmers like Javier?

Decriminalizing production as well as consumption of marijuana in Mexico, for example, has been proposed as a means of reducing drug-related violence that has ravaged the country for years. Creating new, legal products that offer communities such as Javier’s and others around the region a way to make a living legally is a fundamental part of that.

A new focus on the value of products derived from cannabis and coca plants (coca is the base ingredient for cocaine) that don’t provide highs is part of the decriminalization efforts. The hope is that if farmers like Javier start to work for big industry, producing hemp instead of marijuana, it will take them out of the crosshairs of organized crime.

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The future could look bright if governments and the private sector cooperate with communities to provide them with the industry and support they need to switch from illegal to legal products. 

“The legal market [for cannabis] could be part of a wider type of development called ‘alternative development’ … which implies that communities that have involved themselves in the illegal economy try to find alternative crops or sources of income,” said Steve Rolles, from the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, at an event on marijuana legalization earlier this year in Mexico. 

“With drugs, the alternative isn’t to move from farming cannabis or opium to coffee — the challenge is to migrate from the illegal cultivation of cannabis and opium to legal forms of cultivation,” Rolles said.

There’s a big chance that these new markets, which include medicinal and beauty products as well as plastics and clothing, could inject new money into Javier’s community. But some fundamental facts remain that threaten to leave the dynamics, violence and profits around illegal drugs unchanged.

“These [non-high-inducing] products aren’t really linked to the objective of bringing down violence in markets like Mexico — it’s more about profit. It’s not going to contribute to that initial objective,” says Tania Ramírez, from nonprofit Mexico United Against Crime.

First, non-high-producing products from coca and cannabis provide an alternative to producing communities, but consumers still want to get high. Much like the need for sex has for centuries driven prostitution, the desire to get high has made recreational drug use one of the oldest pastimes. A drop in demand for Mexican weed and heroin reflects a change in demand trends from American addicts as much as it does the impact of legalization in the U.S. Addicts are showing a preference for fentanyl over heroin because it is stronger, not weaker. But there hasn’t been a drop in the demand for mind-altering drugs per se. In the U.S., the biggest profits from legal cannabis are still from those that get you stoned. My point? The market for illicit, high-inducing drugs will remain no matter how many non-high-inducing versions of those substances appear on shop shelves.

Second, the lion’s share of drug-related violence doesn’t hugely affect farmers producing plants for drugs; it’s more a result of criminal organizations fighting for control of routes or local sales and distribution markets, or clashes between crime groups and government forces. The victims tend not to be farmers but cartel hitmen and operatives, lookouts and law enforcement officials. Thousands of innocent people have also been killed or abducted during the drug war, the victims of corrupt or inept law enforcement officials, and the cartels using terror tactics like the killing, torturing and abduction of local townspeople not involved in their criminal enterprises as a means of generating fear in communities they want to control.

Javier’s town is an agricultural community that buys and sells drug-producing plants much like it would avocados and tomatoes. Even if organized crime ceases to source products from farmers as it switches its focus to synthetics such as fentanyl and methamphetamine, which can be prepared from Chinese chemicals in clandestine kitchens, the conflict generated by gangs for market control will persist — just around different substances. Which means violence will persist.

“The demand for cocaine or marijuana isn’t going to come down because they can make soda drinks out of it,” says Ramírez.

For farmers like Javier, the future could look bright if governments and the private sector cooperate with communities to provide them with the industry and support they need to switch from illegal to legal products. But as long as consumers in every country in the world want to get stoned, there will always be a market for the drugs that do get you high.

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