Orlando Sentinel

Illicit weed trade could go up in smoke

Growers fretting as Mexico moves to legalize marijuana

- By Maria Verza

Mexican legislatio­n would legalize pot production and sales for recreation­al use.

BADIRAGUAT­O, Mexico — For the first time that Maria can remember, half of her marijuana harvest is still in storage on her ranch in Mexico’s Sinaloa state months after it should have been sold.

Sitting in her wooden house tucked into the mountains that produced some of the world’s most notorious drug trafficker­s, including Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the 44-year-old mother of four thinks she knows why: expectatio­ns Mexico will soon legalize marijuana.

“It has never happened to us where we harvest and have it (stored) in sacks,” said Maria, who asked that her full name not be used and her exact location not be revealed because in the mountains surroundin­g Badiraguat­o, where organized crime controls everything, misspeakin­g can be dangerous.

Mexican legislatio­n awaiting final Senate approval, which now may not come before September, would legalize pot production and sale for recreation­al use while creating a private market regulated by the government. Medicinal use is already legal.

The effort has generated uncertaint­y among families who have cultivated the crop for generation­s and throughout the trade. Growers expect the price of marijuana to drop further and think their trade will become economical­ly unfeasible. They say in the past five years, the price they get has been halved. Everyone is waiting to see how the drug capos will respond to a new legal business. Meanwhile, half of Maria’s crop sits unsold.

Marijuana has become less lucrative each day compared to the cartels’ revenue from synthetic drugs like fentanyl. Demand and the price for pot fell when several states in the U.S. legalized it, though Mexico is still the top foreign supplier to U.S. consumers, according to a recent report by the U.S. Drug Enforcemen­t Administra­tion.

Here in Sinaloa’s mountains, some farmers have stopped growing marijuana. Others are focusing on higher-quality strains that fetch a premium price or they continue to grow it, but along with opium poppies, hoping at least one of them will keep them afloat.

Maria has been working between the tall leafy plants since she was 16 and says she even fell in love among them. At her house, surrounded by fruit trees and chickens, the family doesn’t lack food, but the income from marijuana pays for everything else over the course of the year, from clothing to cellphones to her children’s schooling. Her eldest just got his degree in computer science.

For her family and many others, the concern is not whether marijuana is legal, just that it keeps providing income.

“Since we heard they were going to legalize (marijuana) we began to make the poppy plots larger,” Maria said. But that didn’t work.

In February, their main poppy crop was destroyed. They had planned to live off the revenue from it for a year. Hearing the military helicopter­s approach, Maria took her picture of Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, off the wall and ran to the field to place it among the red flowers.

The saint couldn’t save them from the effects of the herbicide.

Two months later, Maria’s husband worked among marijuana plants more than 3 feet high planted among the dead poppies. It’s all they’re able to water with drip irrigation fed by extra water from the house.

“This little plot is from another seed and it is going to sell, they say, because it’s better quality,” Maria said.

The marijuana they managed to sell from the previous harvest yielded $500, or about $25 per kilogram. In contrast, the poppies that were destroyed would have produced about $5,000 worth of opium gum.

The drug trade has brought a lot of money to inhabitant­s of these mountains over the years, but also a lot of problems.

Maria remembers the years of bonanza when the family was able to buy some cows, which were later sold to pay for her children’s education. Her husband recalls periods of violence when rival groups killed and terrorized locals in an attempt to control the area.

The couple wants a different future for their kids. But asked if she can imagine a time when the mountains are no longer tied to drug traffickin­g, Maria’s 18-yearold daughter says, “never.”

The ties are strong and numerous.

Years ago, Maria’s husband smuggled marijuana across the U.S. border in a backpack. Her daughter’s boyfriend moved marijuana from Phoenix into the U.S. interior.

As Maria prepared chicken soup, “narcocorri­dos,” the ballads chroniclin­g the exploits of drug trafficker­s, sang of the “heirs of Mr. Guzman,” who is serving a life sentence in the U.S.

Guzman’s sons control this area, according to experts.

Five days after an AP team visited the area, Mexican marines carried out an operation near the birthplace of Rafael Caro Quintero, another notorious trafficker released in 2013 from a Mexican prison where he was serving time for the murder of a DEA agent. But otherwise there was little government presence and the area appeared calm, though watched closely by lookouts.

One of the arguments Mexican politician­s cite in their efforts to legalize recreation­al use of marijuana is reducing violence. Some experts are not so sure this will happen but say shrinking the black market and the income of organized crime would be positive.

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