BAJA CALIFORNIA, Mexico — Wearing a cap, a beige T-shirt, and glasses, Jose* doesn't look like an international drug smuggler. But he is.
Jose, who asked not to be identified by his real name, could be any early-30s millennial, dressed down to look more like a helpful clerk in a used bookstore than someone participating in the centuries-long illicit trade over the U.S.-Mexico border. But that's because his hustle is new.
Jose is bucking a trend: Instead of moving illegal drugs north into the United States, he buys high-quality dispensary weed from California and smuggles it south to his native Mexico, taking a legal product and turning it into contraband.
“We see it as medicine, we don't see it as a drug,” said Jose, explaining that while some of his clients are simply connoisseurs of primo weed, “there are people in Mexico who really need it.”
“There are people suffering from multiple diseases of many kinds and they don't have this on hand. So the market is not merely a recreational market but also mostly medicinal,” he said.
Mexico has inched toward legalization at a snail's pace since the Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that outlawing marijuana was unconstitutional. In April, Mexican legislators missed the third Supreme Court deadline to pass legalization and did not formally ask for an extension. That leaves the legislation in limbo until the new congressional session begins in September.
Meanwhile, Jose has found a market willing to pay a 10 percent premium for superior products from California’s legal cannabis pharmacies.
“Without a doubt, the Mexican [weed] is continually getting better,” said Jose. “Although not reaching 100 percent Californian quality.”
Jose began smuggling U.S.-produced marijuana south almost a decade ago during California’s medical marijuana boom, and since then he and his associates have never been caught nor lost a load of weed. His product cruises past Mexican customs posts about twice a month in delivery trucks he has paid off that are returning to Mexico after delivering goods to the U.S. Pandemic restrictions have closed the land border, but the trucks are considered essential traffic.
“It's a lot harder to [smuggle] into the United States than it is to [Mexico],” said Jose. Most vehicles entering Mexico are not stopped unless they are randomly selected by a stoplight system, which he said is predictable if you study it.
Jose seems to have found a niche that Mexico’s notorious drug cartels aren’t interested in, perhaps because the 10 percent markup is pennies compared to the money they make moving drugs like cocaine, heroin, and meth to the U.S.
Jose hopes that Mexico will soon legalize and he can enter the market freely, although he's still not sure how the new laws would work.
“We would love a cultivation license, perhaps a distribution license or a license for a dispensary,” he said. “I think one of those three would be magnificent.”
But that will require patience.
After the federal government failed to pass a legalization bill for marijuana in April, Mexico's Supreme Court ruled on June 28 that certain laws prohibiting the recreational use of weed were void. The Mexican government is required to issue permits for personal marijuana use and the cultivation of small amounts of cannabis plants for adult citizens.
Mexico has made some progress on regulating medical marijuana, publishing regulations earlier this year for its production, research and use. But without an actual adult legal weed law, the majority of marijuana restrictions still remain on the books for everyday citizens.
Seeking a head start, the outgoing governor of Baja California, Jaime Bonilla, presented a controversial bill to the local congress to go ahead with the statewide legalization of medical cannabis.
Emmanuel Farías Camarero, a lawyer for Baja California–based medical cannabis advocacy group Fundación Loto Rojo, says that drug regulation is limited to Mexico’s federal government, which would make Bonilla’s proposal unconstitutional if it passed.
Mexico's General Health Law stipulates that the regulation of “narcotic drugs and psychotropics, such as cannabis, is exclusive” to federal authorities, he said.
The details of the federal legislation that’s stalled in congress have been criticized by activists. They point to the proposed fines and prison time for possession and the lack of affirmative action initiatives to help those affected by prohibition in the past, such as poor cannabis farmers whose crops were eradicated.
“Mexico doesn't yet understand the essentials of sensible cannabis regulation,” said Camarero. But if legalization does pass, he believes that the border state of Baja California should “take advantage of its strategic location, and thus learn from the experience of California.”
“I think the same should happen with the cannabis industry, learning from the success or failure of dispensaries, the implementation of public policy, and the best cultivation techniques,” said Camarero. “I think that it's possible. I even think an interesting collaboration can be generated by mixing the best of both regions. Maybe launching some Cali-Baja kush, or baking a mole-infused edible, something like that.”
California has undoubtedly become a leader in the global cannabis industry since becoming the first U.S. state to allow medical marijuana cards and dispensaries in 2005, known for advancing everything from its diverse strains and edibles to marijuana tech, microdose products, and CBD.
The influx of U.S. weed to Mexico began around that same time years before the actual California legalization law took effect on January 1, 2018, explained Diego*, another Baja California–based legal weed smuggler whose name has been changed.
“I was one of the first ones, and they were telling me, ‘Man, you're crazy. Why the fuck are you bringing stuff from over there?’” said Diego with a chuckle as he recalled when he began running medicinal weed over the border in the mid-2000s.
When medical marijuana became accessible in California, it seemed natural to Diego that Baja California should have it too.
“I was born like one minute from the border. So in my mind, this border should have never existed,” said Diego.
He listed major cities throughout Mexico that he claims he's supplied with legal U.S. weed, but he insisted he and his associates are “not part of any (drug) cartel.”
Diego said that they’re just “sharing the love.”
But with legalization potentially on the horizon, he believes that Baja California is an ideal position in Mexico to capitalize on producing its own legal marijuana because it’s “a super-fertile place, a Mediterranean climate. We have very amazing microclimates.”
He added that “it could be great for tourism. We already have great food, great beer... Why not have great cannabis?” Diego asked hypothetically. “Legally, without making someone into a criminal, because that makes things dirty. And if it's someone who's not a dirty person, why do they have to get dirty, you know?”
But as long as cannabis remains illegal, "there's gonna be a lot of smugglers. It's one of the oldest professions."