California Weed Heads South

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Legal U.S. marijuana is pouring into Mexico. It’s pricey and it’s popular.

MEXICO CITY — The most sought after marijuana being trafficked across the U.S.-Mexico border is now the weed entering Mexico, not the weed leaving it.

Cannabis sold legally in California is heading south illegally, dominating a booming boutique market across Mexico, where buying and selling the drug is still outlawed. Mexican dealers flaunt their U.S. products, noting them in bold lettering on menus sent to select clients: “IMPORTADO.”

Traffickers from California load their suitcases with U.S.-grown marijuana before hopping on planes to Mexico, or walking across the pedestrian border crossing into Tijuana. One car was recently stopped entering Tijuana with 5,600 jars of gummies infused with THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. But relatively few of the southbound traffickers are caught — even as their contraband doubles or triples in value as soon as it enters Mexico.

“The demand here for American weed has exploded,” said one dealer in Mexico City, who estimated that 60 percent of the marijuana he sells now comes from California. The dealer spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of arrest. “It’s aspirational for many of my clients. They want to be seen smoking the best stuff, the stuff rappers brag about smoking.”

Over nearly a century, the United States spent billions of dollars combating drug trafficking from Mexico — and for many years marijuana was at the center of that effort. The strains smoked by American actors and rock stars pointed to Mexico’s geography: Acapulco Gold, Michoacán Cream, Jarilla Sinaloa.

The weed in those days arrived on speedboats, through tunnels and even by slingshot. Sometimes the marijuana drug “mules” that crossed the Rio Grande were actually horses.

But as some states, including California, legalized cannabis and professionalized its production, the world’s most famous cannabis strains — with a new string of American names like Girl Scout Cookies and Bubba Kush — could suddenly be purchased just north of the U.S.-Mexico border, including at outlet malls walking distance from Mexican territory.

At Urbn Leaf, a marijuana dispensary in San Ysidro, Calif., a few hundred yards from the border into Mexico at Tijuana, owner Josh Bubeck estimates that 55 percent of his customers are Mexican nationals. His employees warn them that bringing marijuana back to Mexico is a violation of Mexican law, but to work at Urbn Leaf is to understand the draw.

“Nobody is going to grow cannabis better than California probably ever,” Bubeck said.

Back in Mexico, he said, especially for younger smokers, the appeal is clear: “You’re showing ‘This is what I’m about. I’m a bad ass. I got this from America.’”

For years, advocates of legalizing marijuana in Mexico have argued that the country could establish an enormously profitable industry, given its years of producing the drug illicitly. The Sinaloa Cartel has reportedly been looking into establishing its own legal cannabis subsidiary in Mexico.

But legalization has moved much faster in parts of the United States than in Mexico, giving places like California a huge advantage. Some California weed farms have even hired Mexican migrant workers to tend their fields. The state’s cannabis industry produced $4.4 billion in sales in 2020.

This July, Mexico’s supreme court struck down laws which criminalized the cultivation of cannabis for personal use. But lawmakers have not yet passed legislation that would allow for a commercial marijuana market. It is still technically illegal to buy or sell marijuana, and it is nearly impossible to regulate the quality of Mexican cannabis products available on the illegal market.

“Mexicans want to try what they see in music video, in movies, in media, and that’s usually American,” said another dealer in Mexico City, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of arrest. “We still have this idea that the best products come from the U.S.”

Over the last year, Mexican customs agents have occasionally released information about the American marijuana products seized at the border. In one seizure earlier this month, agents reported a confiscation of just three pounds: 10 cartridges and 14 vape pens. In another, they confiscated 619 cartridges of cannabis oil, worth approximately $30,000 in Mexico.

In a statement, the country’s customs chief, Horacio Duarte Olivares, said that such seizures are increasing, adding that traffickers, “are going to run into a wall, with a firm hand from customs.”

As legal marijuana has become easier to access in the United States, Mexico’s production of the drug has fallen dramatically. Last week, Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, pointed out that the decline was likely to have an impact on employment.

“What is going to happen to the regions where marijuana and poppies were planted?” he asked at a news conference during a visit to Sinaloa, the home state of jailed cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. “What are people going to live on?”

Meanwhile, California-grown marijuana has developed star power here.

Consumers know the names of U.S.-based brands, which are now as desirable for some upper class Mexicans as hard-to-find Nike shoes or a new Supreme hoodie. Almost any product made for a U.S. consumer base can be found in Mexico at a premium. Marijuana is no different.

High-end strains of U.S.-grown marijuana can cost $500 an ounce in Mexico, dealers said, for what might cost $150 in San Diego.

Psychedelic groups of the 1970s might have sung about Acapulco Gold, but American rappers of the 2000s are rhyming about strains produced in U.S. greenhouses.

The lyric “Smokin’ on Cookie in the hotbox,” rapped by Migos in the song “Bad and Boujee,” — referencing the multimillion-dollar Cookies dispensary chain based in Maywood, Calif. — inadvertently prompted a surge in Mexican demand.

Cookies cannabis products are now trafficked frequently into Mexico — and can be purchased across major Mexican cities for a 200 to 300 percent markup.

“All these years we’ve had marijuana come from Mexico to the U.S., and now it’s the opposite,” said Raul Elizalde Garza, the chief executive of Monterrey, Mexico-based HempMeds.

Garza’s company is one of few companies selling CBD products in Mexico. But because of Mexican law, even those products (which do not contain THC) cannot be made with Mexican hemp.

“Companies like us that want to produce legally, who want to invest — we have to wait for complete regulation,” he said. “Marijuana from California has a huge advantage on us.”