Will Legalizing Pot Wipe Out the Black Market?
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Supporters of Proposition 19 liken their cause to the lifting of prohibition on alcohol nearly 80 years ago. Making pot legal and regulating it like alcohol, they say, could raise millions in tax revenues and wipe out the black market, along with the social costs associated with it.
But breaking the underground trade in marijuana might not be so easy.
This past summer, dozens of drug agents in paramilitary gear marched into a remote area of Northern California, west of Redding. As helicopters swirled over the sun-baked hills, the agents used machetes to chop down more than 10,000 bright green marijuana plants. The plants were then lashed into 500-pound bundles and airlifted out.
For Lt. Steve Solus of the Shasta County Sheriff's Office, this operation was one of dozens of raids on illegal pots farms this year.
"There's lots of water. The growing temperature is just right. The elevations are just right. And the big thing they have here is I-5," Solus says. All of those conditions make it easy to transport the marijuana out, he says.
Marijuana seizures are running at record levels in California, having more than tripled since 2005. But drug agents say they are getting only a fraction of the total crop. And in California's saturated pot market, dealers big and small are moving the drug out of state in ever larger quantities, using everything from overnight delivery services to tractor-trailers.
"We're seeing more and more of the marijuana cultivated in California being exported where there is a market that will pay more," says Bill Ruzzamenti, a former special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration who now heads a regional agency that monitors drug trafficking in California.
Ruzzamenti says the pot cultivation boom in California began soon after voters legalized medical marijuana 14 years ago. Now, he believes, California could be a net exporter of the drug.
"Literally, we have had shipments of marijuana from California seized in all 50 states. And they're going to where they can maximize their profits," Ruzzamenti says.
The surging demand for California-grown marijuana is good news for some growers and bad news for the drug war. But the trend could challenge a key goal of Proposition 19 – wiping out the illegal drug trade.
The effect on the black market
A TV ad featuring former San Jose Police Chief Joe McNamara began airing this week, claiming that if passed, Proposition 19 "will generate billions of dollars for local communities, allow police to focus on violent crimes and put drug cartels out of business."
In an interview, McNamara drew parallels to the repeal of alcohol prohibition.
"Al Capone and his bootleg gangsters were shooting up the streets not because they were drunk on booze. It was for the vast underworld profits. And once alcohol was legalized, it put them out of business as bootleggers. And that's the goal of Prop 19 that would be achieved very quickly," McNamara said.
But opponents argue the black market will persist because the measure will not change federal law or statutes in other states.
"There are millions of plants being grown illegally," says George Mull, who heads the California Cannabis Association, a medical marijuana group that opposes Proposition 19. "A lot of it is being sent out of the state. There's no way to think that if Prop 19 passes, those same people are going to register their (marijuana) grows and then keep all of their plants here in California."
Mull says even if Proposition 19 passes, the black market will continue, because prices will stay higher in other states where pot remains illegal, leaving in place a premium for smugglers.