Research from one think tank finds that as much as two-thirds of the pot in the U.S. could be coming from Mexico, sales of which fuel the drug war south of the border. At the same time, the growing acceptance of medical marijuana may be boosting domestic production.
The fact is that when you buy pot on the black market, there's usually no way to know where it came from. In the world of high-end marijuana, there aren’t any labels or stickers; just fancy sounding cannabis strains.
"We were just dealing with some AK-47, Sour Diesel, and O.G.," explained a dreadlocked marijuana middleman after making a pot purchase.
What he and his partner do is illegal, so they asked that their identities not be revealed. They are both in their 20’s and asked to be described as "the conservative looking one and the hippie with dreads."
They are part of a tiny section of the drug economy that actually knows where their product comes from.
They drive to Northern California to buy directly from growers or from distributors who buy from growers there. Most of their business is from the so-called “Emerald Triangle,” a cluster of counties that are to marijuana what Napa and Sonoma counties are to wine.
"I would feel that we are kind of a rarity as far as being as connected as we are," the clean-cut one said.
He said he knows who is profiting from his purchases. It is not violent drug cartels in Mexico, but working people in the Emerald Triangle.
He said money going to them "is going to profit families and paying mortgages."
After the middlemen make their purchases, they sell to other dealers, college kids, medical marijuana users and professionals in Las Vegas. Those are customers who are serious enough about quality to pay $60 for an eighth of an ounce – or enough for about 15 joints.
"They want a high THC content. They want to see no seeds,” the clean cut one said. “They want to see big, puffy nuggets, sticky, sticky weed."
And it’s getting easier for those smokers to get what they want.
"There has never been a time where it has been this easy to get access to high quality marijuana," said Beau Kilmer, the co-director of the Drug Policy Research Center at the Rand Corporation in Los Angeles, a public policy think tank.
That availability seems to be a result of the rising medical marijuana industry in California and more people growing domestically. A few years ago a pound of pretty high end Northern California weed at wholesale price went for about $3500, now the price has fallen to about $2500 (though street prices have remained constant).
But Kilmer’s research shows high quality marijuana remains a small part of the national market.
"The large majority of the country still is consuming commercial grade marijuana, not the high quality stuff," Kilmer said.
In fact, at least 80 percent of the marijuana smoked in the US is commercial grade, according to Kilmer's estimates. It costs just a fraction of the nice stuff coming out of the Emerald Triangle and is likely less potent. And where does that commercial grade pot come from?
Kilmer says a large chunk is imported from Mexico. Purchasing that smuggled pot would benefit the Mexican cartels who are engaged in violent turf battles south of the border.
While law enforcement officials said Mexican nationals are behind much of the cultivation of marijuana on California’s public lands, there isn’t evidence at this point that those sales directly benefit the major drug trafficking organizations south of the border, such as the Sinaloa Cartel or the Gulf Cartel.
Regardless of the social implications, Mexican-grown weed doesn’t have a good reputation in Las Vegas.
"Oh man, Mexican is like, jeez, it’s like dirty,” said Ryan Chrisman, a local construction worker who was relaxing on the Las Vegas strip on a recent week night. “It has seeds. It taste like nothing."
Another smoker complained of the side-effects.
"It gives me a headache, the Mexican weed does," said a man hawking water bottles to tourists. He just gave his first name, Mike, which was also tattooed on his neck.
“I’d rather smoke the stuff in the smoke shops that ain't even weed," he said.
Finally, a visiting hip hop artist from Chicago who uses the name Donahmeni, explained the American appetite for Mexican pot.
"I ain’t gonna front: I love the dirt," Donahmeni said while selling his CDs in front of the Bellagio. He calls the low-grade marijuana that is typically grown in Mexico, "dirt," as in dirt weed. And he likes it because it’s cheap.
"I can smoke 20 blunts, you know what I am saying," Donahmeni said.
Beau Kilmer's research finds that somewhere between 40 to 67 percent of all marijuana in the US probably comes from Mexico. But it’s impossible to track the marijuana market with any certainty because much of the data remains murky.
To quantify the American appetite for pot, researchers must rely on survey data that asks only limited questions about marijuana use. Or on data from law enforcement seizures that may not be a useful proxy for the amount of pot actually distributed and consumed.
Good statistics on who is smoking what, from where, and how much, is critical for making effective marijuana policy, according to Kilmer.
"This is important for assessing the amount of revenues that the Mexican drug trafficking organizations are bringing in," Kilmer said. "It's also important for making projections about legalization."