Legalization is working

Border Patrol sees notable drop in cannabis seizures, as surge in harder drugs floods the market

Hidden drugs in a vehicle secret compartment

It was around 3 a.m. when Border Patrol agents stopped the black GMC truck just outside of Campo, California. It was a routine ordeal, until their K9 alerted to the scent of drugs and the agents subsequently found 250 pounds of pills laced with fentanyl—a haul worth over $3,679,000. 

“Our agents prevented these dangerous narcotics from reaching our communities,” Chief Patrol Agent Aaron Heitke said of the bust. “I am proud to say that our Border Patrol agents here in the San Diego Sector are responsible for over 50% of all the fentanyl seized by the U.S. Border Patrol this fiscal year.”

In 2021, U.S. drug seizures like these rose 25% over the previous year. Within that, cocaine seizures doubled, methamphetamine seizures tripled, and fentanyl interdiction spiked by sevenfold, says the Border Report. That’s despite the agency’s claim that over 60,000 drug traffickers slipped through Border Patrol’s grasp last year, despite its complaints of being understaffed and under-resourced.

But not all drugs saw those wildly increased traffic rates. Marijuana seizures, by contrast, dropped substantially in 2021 and are continuing to do so in 2022. Last year agencies seized 160 tons of cannabis (or about 874 pounds every day); whereas this year, with three months left in 2022, agents have seized just 56 tons (an average of 408 pounds a day). That’s a 54% reduction in just one year. Since 2018, cannabis seizures have dropped by 71%.

It’s a trend that isn’t slowing down, either. Even as other drugs flood across the border at increasing rates, cannabis smuggling is a dying enterprise, according to Border Patrol and other agencies. 

“Overall, DEA marijuana seizures have been declining since 2015,” the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) 2020 National Drug Threat Assessment Survey reads. “The decrease in seizures is most likely caused by the challenges presented by the changing marijuana legal landscape.”

That’s about as close as the DOJ and DEA have ever come to admitting that legalization is working. According to them, the “challenges” presented by the legal landscape are that it’s effectively diminishing U.S. demand for black market cannabis as users seek safer, higher-quality, legally available alternatives. Domestic businesses are making money that’s being taxed, and which would have otherwise gone straight into cartel coffers.

As a result, the cartels are pivoting. They’ve ramped up production and transportation of other highly addictive and oftentimes deadly drugs like fentanyl and meth. Between 2018 and 2021, meth seizures rose by 128% and synthetic opioids like fentanyl rose 456%, according to

The cartel is also getting increasingly involved in human trafficking, according to area law enforcement. Officers from the Mexican state of Chihuahua are reporting that cartels are moving to replace independent human smugglers with their own affiliated gang members. Arizona police have reported similar things in Sonora, where the Sinaloa cartel has started forcing migrants to wear huge packs of drugs as they cross the border, effectively turning innocent migrants into fully blown drug mules.

Prohibition continues to fuel this. And not the prohibition of cannabis, but prohibition of drugs in general. With the demand for black market cannabis declining, and enforcement for other drugs still escalating, the cartels are making a strategic business decision. They’re shifting their smuggling tactics to move substances that are far more potent, far easier to smuggle in large quantities, far more addictive, and far more lucrative than cannabis because they’re still illegal.

It’s a classic example of the “iron law of prohibition” (see Weed Between the Lines, “The iron law of prohibition,” May 12, 2022) that, as law enforcement becomes more intense, the potency of prohibited substances increases. Or, more simply: The harder the enforcement, the harder the drugs.

And the more of them. As evidenced by the simultaneous 25% increase in seized drugs, and nearly 50% decrease in cannabis seizures the very same year. 

Cannabis legalization is working. Even though there are still several states upholding prohibition, and even though the federal government has yet to make any meaningful progress to decriminalize it, the black market for cannabis is withering in the U.S. An outcome that shows how legal regulation not only makes a product safer, but takes business away from some of the most dangerous criminal enterprises on the planet. An outcome that could be achieved with every street drug, if there was the right kind of political will in Washington. 

Because legalization is the only way America’s never ending war on drugs will ever actually be won—the only way to truly stop those truckloads of fentanyl pills from ever entering this country, instead of trying to catch them once they’re already here. 

Cannabis seizures, however, have plummeted over the last decade as more U.S. states have legalized recreational and medical use of marijuana. The 58,000 pounds of cannabis seized at the border during the first 9 months of fiscal 2022 are equivalent to what would have been seized in a typical week in 2013.