Weeding Out the Truth: Why Marijuana Legalization Is Not Worth the Counter-Terrorism Benefits

Before 2014, when people found out that I am from Colorado, they asked one of two questions: 1) do I ski and 2) do I own cowboy boots (the answer is “yes” to both).  Now that marijuana is legal, that’s what everyone is curious about.  Even people in Guatemala and Italy talk about how great Coloradan pot is.  Not exactly the kind of comment I want associated with my state.  Please just stick to asking about skiing.

The primary argument for legalizing marijuana is economic (it’s now taxable, so it generates state income), but pro-pot supporters also argue that there are security benefits to legalization, like dealing an economic blow to Mexican drug cartels.  But what about legalizing pot as a counter-terrorism measure?  There’s some logic to the argument.  Terrorist organizations like Hezbollah make millions every year through narco-trafficking.  Cartels in Central and South America directly profit from drug sales all over the globe, including the Middle East and North Africa.  Mexican drug cartels are using increasingly more violent tactics like car bombings and assassinations in both Mexico and the U.S. to protect and expand their business.  And Americans spend billions of dollars on illegally imported marijuana, mostly from Mexico.  A nationwide legalization policy could theoretically deal a devastating blow to both drug cartels and the terrorist groups they help fund.

In theory, it’s a great plan, but theory rarely pans out.  Most of the narcotics that major terrorist groups are growing rich on are cocaine, hashish, and cannabis resin from Afghanistan, Colombia, and Morocco, respectively, rather than Latin American marijuana.  That’s not to say that Mexican cartels aren’t also conducting business with terrorist groups.  It’s just that the cartels make most of their money running drugs directly to the United States rather than to terrorist organizations.  So maybe Hezbollah could make money helping Mexican drug cartels smuggle marijuana into the international market.  Their profits pale in comparison to what Hezbollah makes working directly with the Colombian cocaine, and frankly, legalizing pot is not going to cause noticeable damage to anyone involved.

More importantly, the U.S. isn’t ready for nation-wide legalized pot as a security strategy.  The Colorado legalization experiment hasn’t really proven strategically successful.  Marijuana sales have generated over $700 million in profits for the local economy, but whether or not this is having a significant impact on the Mexican cartels is a subject of serious (and fairly heated) debate.  Legalizing pot may have been a blow to the cross-border drug trade, but drug cartels are involved in so much more than just marijuana smuggling.  They certainly aren’t relying on marijuana to stay in business, and drug cartels would simply refocus away from pot to more heroin and cocaine.  Denver 7NEWS warns that taking away their business trafficking marijuana has increased the cartel's’ involvement in human trafficking rings. That sounds a lot worse to me.

But more than anything, the U.S. doesn’t have the infrastructure to handle large-scale legalization.  Looking around me when I go home, I can see a lot of the negative consequences of legalizing pot in the streets.  There’s a growing number of people in the streets who came to Colorado after the legalization and are now homeless wanderers in downtown Denver.  Law enforcement is not equipped to deal with people driving high (last time I checked, only 125 officers in the state had handheld devices to check for marijuana intoxication).  And we still don’t know about the impact of marijuana on teens experimenting with drugs for the first time.  Maybe legalizing marijuana will be worthwhile sometime after we have hammered out all the regulations.  But right now, the potential security and economic benefits just aren’t worth the headache of legalization.