As the wholesale price-per-pound of legal cannabis plummets in some states bordering Mexico, cartels in the country are shifting to more lucrative drugs: fentanyl and other synthetic drugs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced this week that fentanyl is now the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18-45, thanks in part to criminal involvement in multiple countries.
Texas is the only state bordering Mexico without adult-use cannabis, and it shows in the prices. Mexico’s cartels once relied on organic farms of poppies and cannabis to produce drugs, but the times have changed. Illicit cannabis eradication in Mexico was slashed in half in recent years—aligning with the timeline of pot legalization up north.
Mexico’s Secretary of Defense, General Luis Cresencio Sandoval said that for cartels, cannabis and other organic drugs like opium-rich poppies are out, and fentanyl is in.
The Associated Press reports that according to Sandoval, seizures of fentanyl soared 525 percent during the first three years of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s reign, who took office December 1, 2018, compared to the previous three years.
During that time period, law enforcement agents seized 1,232 pounds (559 kilograms) of fentanyl in 2016-2018 and 7,710 pounds (3,497 kilograms) in 2019-2021.
The reason for the switch is that the bottom line improves when cartel operations shift from organic opiate to synthetic opioids, which are cheaper to produce. “There was a change in consumption, there was a change in drug markets due to the ease of producing synthetic drugs,” Sandoval said. Cartels no longer have to pay for manpower to grow poppies and slowly scrape the opium that oozes from the poppy bulbs. The same could be said about the growing/trimming/curing process for cannabis.
But the synthetic drugs don’t originate from Mexico. Mexican cartels can order fentanyl online from Asia at wholesale value, then cut it up into doses ready for the street. Labs also produce drugs like meth, which is also more profitable than organic cannabis or opium. “The laboratories that have been discovered or seized in this administration have had larger capacities, which has allowed us to seize a larger quantity of methamphetamine products,” Sandoval said.
Meth seizures soared from 120,100 pounds (54,521 kilograms) in 2016-2018 to nearly 275,000 pounds (124,735 kilograms) in the last three years—a 128 percent increase. On November 18, a record-breaking amount of meth and fentanyl were discovered being delivered from a trucker at the Otay Mesa port of entry in San Diego, according to a report by the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of California. Border agents found 17,584 pounds of methamphetamine and 388.93 pounds of fentanyl in the truck.
Mexico’s data matches recent documents updated on October 14, and compiled by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), which operates within the Library of Congress, working directly for members of Congress. “Despite early supply chain disruptions, U.S.-bound illicit drug supplies appear to have returned to pre-pandemic levels; illicit fentanyl flows in particular appear to be thriving,” CRS reported. Just a year earlier, the CRS admitted that legal cannabis in particular is hurting cartels in another document. “Authorities are projecting a continued decline in U.S. demand for Mexican marijuana because drugs ‘other than marijuana’ will likely predominate,” CRS wrote. “This is also the case due to legalized cannabis or medical cannabis in several U.S. states and Canada, reducing its value as part of Mexican trafficking organizations’ portfolio.”
Meanwhile, Mexico’s Senate is on track to endorsing recreational cannabis.
Still, some cartel operations plan on selling cannabis, legal or not. The Daily Beast reports that the Sinaloa cartel are already working on infiltrating the legal pot market in Mexico, according to “cartel operatives.” It’s unclear how the cartel plans to move forward, such as muscling its way into licensing.