MEXICO CITY — If Californians vote to legalize marijuana on Nov. 2, Mexico’s drug cartels would feel the pinch, but the impact wouldn't be overwhelming, a U.S. policy research center said Tuesday. The 57-page study by the RAND Corp. of Santa Monica, Calif., says that the U.S. government routinely overestimates Mexican criminal gangs' earnings from marijuana. An accurate estimate would be $1.5 billion to $2 billion a year, a fraction of their overall earnings from narcotics smuggling and other criminal activity, it says.
The California ballot initiative would permit those 21 or older to cultivate 5- by 5-foot plots of marijuana, legalize its possession and allow municipalities to regulate and tax its production and sale.
The outcome of the initiative is uncertain. A Reuters/lpsos poll last week found that 53 percent of state voters oppose the measure.
The RAND study casts doubt on an argument of supporters of California’s Proposition 19 that the measure would help quell violence from Mexican drug gangs. In the short run, it says, legalization could increase violence in Mexico as cartels fire workers and battle for dwindling business.
“We’ve figured out that you can’t solve Mexico’s violence problems in the United States, at least not without legalizing substances that are not on the table now,” said Jonathan P. Caulkins, of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, a co-author of the report.
The authors of the study said they sought to inform rather than to sway the outcome of the initiative in California, a state that consumes an estimated one-seventh of the marijuana used in the United States.
Still, White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske hailed the findings.
“This report shows that despite the millions spent on marketing the idea, legalized marijuana won’t reduce the revenue or violence generated by Mexican drug-trafficking organizations,” Kerlikowske said.
Supporters of the California initiative say it would bring new revenue to local governments and allow law enforcement to focus on violent crime.
Opponents say the measure would increase marijuana usage, make the roads more dangerous and put California in conflict with federal law.
The study’s lead author, Beau Kilmer of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center, said that if the initiative passed, Mexican cartels might lose as little as 2 to 4 percent of their revenue annually, rising to 13 to 23 percent if legal California marijuana were smuggled all over the United States and at prices that led the Mexican gangs to quit the illicit market. The study says that too little is known about how growing and marketing may evolve after a legalization of marijuana, including how aggressively California growers would attempt to export marijuana to states where it remains illegal and what methods the federal government would use to block that.
Consumer preferences also may play a role, the study says. Marijuana grown in California is two to 3.6 times stronger than Mexican weed is, so if it flows in greater amounts to the rest of the U.S. that may force down the price of Mexican marijuana.
If pressed by states awash in California marijuana, the study says, the federal government could take action to force Sacramento to crack down on exports.
“For example, withholding federal highway funds would more than likely offset any marijuana tax revenues, making marijuana legalization a budget problem, not a budget rescue,” the study says.
Caulkins said that Mexican drug gangs probably would exit the marijuana business in California if it became a crop like carrots or lettuce.
“The whole logistics and technology and approach to producing a legal plant are not ones that criminals have any special skill at,” he said.
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