EL PASO, Texas -- Mexican drug cartels fighting each other for smuggling routes face increasing competition in the U.S. where legalization in some states has increased the amount of marijuana available.
The drug war in Mexico may have helped U.S. growers gain a foothold in some regions.
“The majority of this weed is coming from California. A little bit of it is coming from Colorado,” said a narcotics officer with the El Paso Police Department who works undercover.
According to the DEA, the amount of marijuana from Mexico seized in the El Paso area declined by nearly half starting in 2009, as drug cartels clashed violently just across the border in Ciudad Juarez.
"Once the fighting started in Mexico, we didn’t have the amount that was coming through in the past," said the narcotics officer.
When the violence disrupted smuggling operations, officers began to see more U.S. grown pot, especially a variety known as Kush. It’s more potent and higher priced than Mexican marijuana.
On a recent afternoon, officers arrested two people on drug charges in a quiet El Paso neighborhood. The woman is a soldier at Fort Bliss. Officers said her boyfriend was a dealer who sold Kush in the home they shared.
“This guy has a little bit more than the usual street dealer: half a pound of Kush. You’re looking at $3,000 to $4,000,” said an undercover officer on the scene.
A one-pound bundle of Kush known on the streets as a “baby” is worth $8,000.
A medical marijuana patient in Las Cruces, who did not want his name used, said there are still plenty of people who can only afford the less expensive Mexican marijuana he referred to as “gas tank pot” because it’s often compressed and smuggled across the borders hidden in vehicles.
Supporters of legalization predict licensed growers will eliminate the need for users to rely on criminal organizations for their supply of pot.
But others doubt drug cartels will give up without a fight. Marijuana is Mexico's top illegal cash crop.
“I think they’ll compete in an economic battle with American marijuana producers because it doesn’t’ serve their interest to get into a violent clash with Americans on U.S. soil,” said Howard Campbell, a professor at the University of Texas El Paso, and author of Drug War Zone.
“I think the Mexican cartels are rational business organizations.” said Campbell. “Even though they’re very violent in Mexico, what they’ll do with the growing legalization in the U.S. is figure out ways to get their product to the American consumer.”
There are already signs that cartels in Mexico are adapting.
“We’ve had one seizure that they’ve told us that it’s Mexican Kush, not very good quality, but it’s coming," said the undercover narcotics officer.
Experts expect the quality to improve as Mexican growers perfect their crop. The quantity smuggled across the border in the El Paso area is starting to increase now that violence has subsided in Juarez.
Few in law enforcement on the border expect Mexican cartels to get out of the marijuana business because of legalization.
Eighteen States and Washington D.C. have medical marijuana programs. Colorado and Washington State also allow recreational use.
"If all the states legalized it the Mexicans would somehow snake their way into it because they can produce a cheaper product. They can produce more of it,” said the undercover narcotics officer.