Pot, weed, and dope, all are nicknames for the most commonly used drug in America. 22.2 million people in the U.S. claim to have used in within the past month, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health conducted in 2015. Public perception about the risks of marijuana use has slowly developed a more favorable view of it. While still illegal at the Federal level, many states have started to legalize the use of marijuana.
Marijuana is also the number one most commonly smuggled drug in America. According to the CBP, 99.9% of marijuana smuggled into the United States comes in through our southern border. In 2015 alone, 1,536,499 pounds of marijuana were seized at the border. Literally millions of pounds of marijuana get smuggled into the U.S. every year. The amount being smuggled into our country is also on the rise.
Other drugs like cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and fentanyl are also being smuggled into the U.S. at higher rates than previously. Studies have shown that these types of drugs come in most commonly through legal ports of entry, like border crossing stations. While the effects and risks of marijuana use are generally regarded as insubstantial and small, the effects and risks of these “hard” drugs are much worse. While the CDC claims that “a fatal overdose of marijuana unlikely”, overdoses on hard drugs have been skyrocketing in recent years. National drug overdose deaths have risen from 16,000 in 1999 to 70,000 in 2017, with a large percentage of that rise occurring in the last 5 years.
These hard drugs are also smuggled at high rates through the southern border. Unlike marijuana, which is smuggled through in large quantities, cocaine, heroin, meth, and fentanyl are brought through in smaller, less noticeable sizes. Only 6,000 pounds of meth were seized in the U.S. in 2015, compared to 1.5 million pounds of marijuana. But the potency of these hard drugs is much, much stronger, hence the increasing overdose rates.
The Mexican drug cartels that direct the large majority of all drug smuggling through the southern border know all of this. They know how much marijuana is caught at the southern border and they actually use the more easily detected drug to make money.
The global average price paid for marijuana is $9.18 per gram. Compared to cocaine’s average price of $80 per gram, that is relatively cheap. Heroin and methamphetamine come in even higher at $91.16 and $108.78 per gram, respectively. Obviously, marijuana is not the money drug for the cartels. They can make much higher profits selling smaller quantities of hard drugs and have much less caught at the border because only smaller quantities are needed.
Drug cartels, as terrible and inhumane as they are, operate very efficiently and have excellent business models. They understand the supply and demand of the drug markets and how to make the highest profits possible for themselves. They also understand drug laws in the U.S. and how to use them to their advantage.
Being a graduate student at Arizona State University, I have actually had the opportunity to interview a few former border patrol agents to learn more about the drug cartels and how they function. Multiple former border patrol and ICE agents have told me that the drug cartels use high levels of marijuana seizures to their advantage. Because marijuana is fairly inexpensive to grow and not as profitable of a drug, the cartels shield their money drugs with it. When smuggling a drug like heroin through a border crossing, drug runners first attempt to pass through with a car (or cars) packed full of marijuana. This forces many border patrol agents to assist in confiscating all the marijuana and to process those individuals that are caught. But all this commotion causes a huge distraction and under staffing in other areas, allowing runners with smaller quantities of heroin or cocaine to pass through the border undetected. This is another reason why such large quantities of marijuana are seized at the border while other drugs pass through much more easily.
Other techniques similar to the one described above are used elsewhere in the U.S. Often times bait cars are sent out in front of the drug runners, flying through an area at 100 MPH, trying to flush out law enforcement. An unsuspecting pair of individuals like an elderly couple then drives a second car, the one carrying all the drugs. A third car then follows behind, ready to act in defense of the second car if necessary.
Corruption at the border is also a problem. Border crossing agents that have connections with the cartels often times allow cars carrying illegal drugs to pass through, for a certain price. According to former agents I have interviewed, the drug runners get in contact with corrupt border patrols agents who inform the runners which lane to be in, when to be there, and how much they need to pay to get through. Due to under staffing in border patrol and ICE, it is hard to detect this kind of corruption.
Obviously, the amount of drugs passing through the border is concerning and needs to be addressed. While President Trump and many Republicans believe a border wall would address the problem, the evidence of how drugs are being smuggled through the border would say otherwise. The majority of drugs are being smuggled through legal ports of entry where there is a wall and many border patrol agents. But many Democrats and other Republicans consistently say there is no emergency or even a problem at the border. With the drug overdose problem that exists in the U.S., obviously there is a huge need for policy change.
In our next iteration of this series, we will explore possible solutions to the drug overdose epidemic. We will examine current solutions being explored as well as future possible policy alternatives.
Dallin Overstreet is the Senior Policy Research Fellow at the American Freedom Institute