A bipartisan group of U.S. senators are acknowledging that state-level marijuana legalization has disrupted the operations of international drug cartels as they raise concerns with the State Department over plans to ban menthol cigarettes and cap nicotine content.
In a letter sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week, Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA), Bob Casey (D-PA), Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Bill Hagerty (R-TN) said that prohibitionist policies for certain tobacco products would benefit the illicit market, which is continually evolving in response to new regulatory policies.
The lawmakers used cannabis as an example of how cartel operations shift depending on whether certain substances are prohibited or regulated. Legalization at the state level, they argued, has reduced demand for illicit marijuana.
“As it has become easier to sell marijuana products in the U.S., Mexican TCOs [transnational criminal organizations] have prioritized trafficking fentanyl and other synthetic drugs that are cheaper to manufacture, easier to transport, and generate more profit,” the senators—none of whom are vocal cannabis legalization advocates—said.
Republican senators, including Cassidy, Rubio and Hagerty, made the same point in a letter to the head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last month, imploring the agency to reconsider its plans to ban menthol cigarettes and cap nicotine content.
“TCOs have expanded their operations to include the production and distribution of cigarettes,” the bipartisan group wrote in the new letter to Blinken. “TCOs more generally have taken advantage of drug smuggling routes to import illegal cigarettes into the U.S., contributing to the significant use of smuggled cigarettes.”
The senators included a list of questions for the secretary of state about how the department is dealing with issues related to illicit tobacco trafficking. They asked about the status of interagency work to combat the problem, how efforts to limit tobacco use could empower traffickers and engagement with international partners to address the problem, for example.
“It is clear that threat actors—from transnational organized crime entities to terrorist organizations—are employing increasingly creative tools to subvert controls imposed by the U.S. and our international partners,” they said. “We appreciate the work that the men and women of the Department of State do in countering these efforts, and urge continued action to address these threats.”
The senators’ point about shifting trends in marijuana trafficking as states legalize is bolstered by a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report that was released last year, showing how demand for illicit cannabis from Mexico has continued to drop as more states open regulated domestic markets.
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The head of the labor union that represents U.S. Border Patrol agents also acknowledged in 2020 that state-level legalization of marijuana had disrupted cartel activity.
Federal marijuana trafficking cases continued to decline in 2022, according to an annual report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) that was released in March.
FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program similarly has shown a notable decrease in cannabis “arrests” made at the state and local levels as more jurisdictions enact reform. (Experts, however, have raised questions about the quality of FBI’s data based on alleged confusion among law enforcement agencies about reporting requirements.)
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has cited similar dynamics. As part of its Fiscal Year 2023 performance budget summary submitted to Congress last year, DEA acknowledged that as more marijuana is being produced domestically in the U.S., it is undermining illicit cannabis trafficking across the southern border.