Mexican-Grown Pot Hits Record Low at Border as Competition with State-Legal Pot Rises

U.S. Customs and Border Protection data shows that 2023 was the slowest year at the border for pot seizures yet.

Many older stoners remember low-grade brick weed, traditionally grown at enormous farms in Mexico, as a commonly available product in the U.S.. But Mexican-grown weed sold on the black market started falling out of favor decades ago as it competed with domestically-grown cannabis. NORML reports that border seizures for Mexican-grown pot at the southwest border have hit a record low.

Hydroponics, organic inputs, feminized seeds, and other improved growing methods made low-quality seeded weed grown outdoors in bulk by cartels a thing of the past. The relatively new phenomenon of state-legal adult-use cannabis, which started in 2014 put the final nail in the coffin for the trade of Mexican-grown weed in the U.S.

Seizures of Mexican-grown cannabis peaked in 2009, when U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents seized 3.3 million pounds (1.5 million kilos) of cannabis on the southwest border that year, the highest amount ever recorded. Often the low-quality weed, a brownish or dark green color, was seeded and vacuum-pressed into kilo-sized bricks, ready to be smuggled over the border. For many Americans, this type of weed was all they could get before domestically-grown, or legal cannabis came to their state.

Nowadays, border patrol agents are intercepting far less cannabis, which can no longer compete with potent pot available at adult-use cannabis retail shops in California, Arizona, and New Mexico, which all border Mexico. 

Tracing back to 2009, you can see a long, steady plunge that shows the weed-smuggling business at the southern U.S-Mexico border is a shadow of what it used to be.

Plunging Cannabis Seizure Statistics at the Border

Agents are finding only a tiny fraction of the pot they used to intercept at the border. According to data published on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website, federal law enforcement agents intercepted a record low 61,000 pounds (27,669 kilos) of cannabis at the southern border in 2023. The total represents a 29 percent decline from 2022 and a 98 percent decline in seizure activity since 2013, when the agency reported interdicting more than 2.4 million pounds of cannabis.

“When it comes to retail cannabis, the prevailing attitude is ‘Buy American,’” said NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano. “The rise of the regulated state-legal cannabis market has not only supplanted Americans’ demand for Mexican cannabis, but in many places it has also disrupted the unregulated domestic marketplace.”

According to survey data compiled by New Frontier Data and published on May 16, 2023, 52 percent of US consumers residing in legal states said that they primarily sourced their cannabis products from brick-and-mortar establishments. By contrast, only 6 percent of respondents said that they primarily purchased cannabis from “a guy” illegally.

What can also be gleaned from the latest U.S. Customs and Border Protection data is that meth is on pace to surpass cannabis as the number one drug found at the border. Meth has already surpassed cannabis at the southwest border as agents found 121,000 pounds of the drug, almost twice as much cannabis found at that border in pounds.

Weed Smuggled the Other Way, From U.S. to Mexico

Mexican cartels have, for the most part, shifted to production of other drugs—namely meth. But in some cases, cartels never stopped growing and infiltrated grow operations in the U.S. including farms in Northern California and Oregon. Trinity County Sheriff Tim Saxon told USA Today in 2023, that cartel activity in the area is high, and sometimes involves human trafficking.

If anything, pot is being smuggled in the other direction more often. High Times reported in 2016 that cannabis is now being smuggled the other way—south of the U.S.-Mexico border.

A report from KPBS suggests that people living in Tijuana with visas or dual citizenship have been driving into California, where weed has been legal for medical purposes for nearly two decades, and smuggling small amounts back home. 

Dr. Raul Palacios, clinical director at the Centro de Integración Juveníl drug rehabilitation facility in Tijuana, told KPBS that many of his patients prefer the high quality of medical cannabis they get in California to the cannabis grown in Mexico because it gets them higher. But he says that since these people have grown accustomed to lower THC levels, California-grown cannabis has a capacity to induce hallucinations and cause paranoia.

The falling numbers show that Americans prefer high-quality lab-tested cannabis versus weed that has to be pressed into bricks and smuggled over the border. The harsh smoke, earthy taste, and tell-tale red eyes have been replaced with lab-tested pot regulated in state industries.

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