It just doesn’t pay to traffic marijuana anymore—at least not if you’re running a criminal drug-trafficking organization.
Mexican drug cartels abandoning weed by the bale-full on isolated beaches know it, and now criminal gangs in Canada—where, unlike in the U.S., marijuana legalization has a prominent state sponsor—are learning this hard truth and ditching weed for something less legal, and more profitable.
Organized crime’s stake in narcotics is far from a monopoly: Only about half of all drug-related criminal charges tracked in four major Canadian metro areas over a two-year period were connected in some way to organized crime, according to a recent report from Statistics Canada picked up by the Globe and Mail.
Of these, about 39 percent of marijuana trafficking charges were traced back to organized crime by police and prosecutors in some way, according to the report—and only six percent of all marijuana cultivation cases were found to be gang-related.
Compare that to 62 percent of all cocaine-trafficking cases and 62 percent of meth-related crimes. If the report can be trusted, it’s abundantly clear organized crime in Canada has moved on from weed.
This isn’t new, and it’s not limited to Canada.
Intellectuals at Mexican think tanks believe legalization in America has cut drug cartels’ earnings north of the border by as much as 30 percent—and that was when recreational cannabis was available in just a few states, not in eight states and for 65 million Americans and counting, as it is today.
Canada is poised to go even farther. Canada’s health ministry licenses large-scale medical-marijuana production. Companies that grow weed have federal licenses and are publicly traded—the very first marijuana “unicorn,” a public company valued at $1 billion, is a marijuana company. And since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has promised to legalize cannabis in some way at the federal level, what we have now is only the beginning.
There’s still quite a bit of money to be made on the black market. Out of the $53 billion spent on marijuana in North America, by one metric, $7 billion was spent on legal over-the-counter sales.
Still, the effect on cartel activity has been profound. They’re still in the drug trade, but have moved on to a much more dangerous game. Farmers in Sinaloa have given up on growing marijuana, and instead are growing poppies for heroin. Similarly, cartels have built massive meth labs that have in turn largely put an end to domestic methamphetamine production in the United States.
In Canada, lawbreakers focused on profit are much more likely to be engaged in dealing prescription pills and opiate-based drugs, like fentanyl, a spokesman for British Columbia’s anti-gang task force told the newspaper.
And while other drug cops in Canada are scoffing at this latest report, saying it contradicts “common wisdom” from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on how much of the Canadian cannabis trade is controlled by gangsters—and when are cops ever wrong?—there could be even less organized crime in cannabis than the report suggests.
The report’s authors used standard criminal-justice system definitions for what constitutes a gang. And, as one academic noted, what the police judges to be a gang may only qualify as a “group of several people” for most citizens.
Not everyone is interpreting this data as an indication that harder drugs, and not marijuana, are the stock-in-trade of career criminals. One Toronto-area member of Parliament believes that the report suggests the many dispensaries that have been popping up across the country may be in some way connected to organized crime.
Of course: the Canadian El Chapo is opening up a store to be inspected and raided by police, selling product on which taxes will eventually be owed—the perfect cover.
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