- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Tuesday that he plans to target drug cartels and crack down on gun crimes to snuff out what could be the start of a national crime wave, evidenced by a recent uptick in homicides and other violence.

But left unsaid is whether Mr. Sessions also will direct the Justice Department to disrupt the legal marijuana industry — a move that critics say could undermine his goals and enable the cartels.

Speaking Tuesday to the National Association of Attorneys General, Mr. Sessions warned of the dangers posed by cartels that are able to smuggle drugs such as marijuana and heroin across the U.S.-Mexico border.

“The less money they extract out of America, that is sent to their organizations, the less power and less danger they present to their governments and their people and the fewer people are addicted,” he said.

The attorney general has been steadfast in his opposition to marijuana legalization, saying drug use and crime go hand in hand.

“I do not believe that this pop in crime, this increase in crime is necessarily an aberration, a one-time blip. I’m afraid it represents the beginning of a trend, and I think what really concerns me in the bottom of all that is also the increase in drugs in America,” Mr. Sessions said. “They tend to follow one another. That’s what happened in the ‘60s and ‘70s. And I think it could happen now.”

But researchers on the legal marijuana industry and drug cartel say the eight states that have legalized pot, if anything, have undercut the marijuana black markets dominated by Mexican cartels.

For the federal government to begin targeting the legal industry would drive control of the market back into the hands of the cartels, said Tom Angell, chairman of the Marijuana Majority, a pro-legalization group.

“Going after states’ legal marijuana providers would be a huge gift to the drug cartels that would love to reassert their control over a considerable portion of the market,” Mr. Angell said. “It’s not like people are going to stop using marijuana if the Justice Department decides to crack down. It’s just that they are not going to buy it from tax-paying businesses. They will go back to buying it on the street.”

Since 2012, when Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana use and sales, law enforcers have seen a steep drop in the amount of marijuana seized at the southern U.S. border. Annual reports from the U.S. Border Patrol show that seizures of marijuana have declined steadily since fiscal 2013, when 2.4 million pounds of marijuana were seized at the border. In fiscal 2016, the Border Patrol reported seizing 1.2 million pounds of pot.

The declines could indicate a slowing illegal market or, as the Drug Enforcement Administration has noted, illegal operators could be increasingly choosing to hide in plain sight rather than transport marijuana across the border.

“Since the legalization of personal-use marijuana, there has been an influx of not only individuals but organized groups of individuals who have relocated to Colorado for the sole purpose of producing marijuana to transport and sell in other markets,” the DEA reports in its 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment. “Many of these operations involve multiple homes, and some of them involve dozens of homes, purchased or rented and converted into grow sites. Many of the individuals involved in this activity are longtime drug traffickers, and are frequently armed.”

With eight states and the District of Columbia having legalized recreational pot use, there is plenty of money to be made in the marijuana industry. Market analysis from New Frontier estimated the value of the medical and recreational marijuana market at $7.2 billion in 2016, with the potential for the market to grow to $24.5 billion by 2025.

As seizures of marijuana have declined, the DEA says, seizures of heroin at the border have skyrocketed. In 2010, law enforcement seized 1,016 kilograms of heroin at the border. By 2015, the amount seized had doubled to 2,524 kilograms, “due both to increased Mexican heroin smuggling and to enhanced law enforcement efforts along the border,” according to the DEA’s latest assessment report.

Cartels are thought to have expanded their reach in the heroin market to exploit the U.S. opioid epidemic and to make up for lost profits caused by marijuana legalization.

“Cartels are not governed by any law. They are simply acting on supply and demand,” said Jeronimo Cortina, an analyst on the drug war and Mexico and a political science professor at the University of Houston.

The cartels will be watching for signs that their competitors in the legal marijuana industry are in trouble.

“If marijuana becomes illegal again, it is a matter of supply and demand again,” Mr. Cortina said. “Someone else is going to come in and supply that good for these individuals.”

A 2012 study by the Mexican Institute of Competitiveness estimated that drug cartels’ sales revenue could drop by 22 percent to 30 percent in Washington, Oregon and Colorado on account of legalization.

“If the prices were to go back up, you would probably see increased interest there,” said Nathan P. Jones, a scholar on drug policy and Mexico studies at the Baker Institute and a security studies professor at Sam Houston State University.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer stirred concern among those in the marijuana industry last week when he said the Trump administration plans to seek “greater enforcement” of federal laws against marijuana.

The drug remains illegal under federal law, though the Obama Justice Department in 2013 announced guidelines that limited federal enforcement of marijuana laws in states that had opted to legalize medical or recreational use.

Mr. Sessions has not indicated if he plans to roll back or revise the guidelines, commonly referred to as the Cole memo, or to otherwise step up enforcement. He said during a briefing with reporters on Monday that the Cole memo offers some points of value in terms of enforcement priorities, but that the policy is under review.

“We’re going to look at it and try to adopt responsible policies,” Mr. Sessions said. “States, they can pass the laws they choose. I would just say it does remain a violation of federal law to distribute marijuana throughout any place in the United States, whether a state legalizes it or not.”

Whatever action the Justice Department might take to step up drug law enforcement, marijuana advocates such as Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, say they expect backlash.

“If the Trump administration goes through with a crackdown on states that have legalized marijuana, they will be taking billions of dollars away from state-sanctioned businesses and putting that money back into the hands of drug cartels,” Mr. Altieri said. “This action will lead to swift backlash from the 71 percent of Americans that think marijuana policy should be dictated by the states and is a foolish and reckless direction to take our country.”

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