Cannabis production in Mexico is making a comeback, and this time it’s cartel-free. Independent farmers are now producing high-quality “ethical” weed—without the involvement of the country’s violent cartels.
As the country prepares to create a legal weed market, cannabis producers and dealers in Mexico told VICE that interest in finer types of homegrown weed, marketed with names such as Cronica (chronic), Blue Dreams or Purpura (purple), is growing among consumers in major cities.
The new ethical market does not come with the bloodbath connected to the cartels. Production and transportation is being arranged between producers and dealers, cutting out the violent middle men.
Alongside other producers from the violent state of Sinaloa, Lazaro, a farmer, told VICE he is now planting cannabis, or ramas (branches), as he calls it, inside homes and greenhouses. His indoor crop is closely packed into a room under an orange light, which reflects off the white walls to create an amber glow. The plants sway under the breeze of a bank of fans, facing into the room from their stations, mounted every two meters along the walls.
None of the farmers who spoke to VICE had to ask permission from the cartels to go it alone. “We’re independent and doing it for ourselves,” said Lazaro.
Similar to legal farmers in California and Colorado, growers in Mexico are sowing new seeds brought in from the United States and Europe to produce stronger, more refined products as well as oils and other derivatives. They’re investing in technology including lights, fertilizers and climate control for their plants.
“We have to innovate,” Ricardo, another farmer from Sinaloa, told VICE. “Innovation is what is generating business now. The seeds arrived a few years ago from Europe and the U.S., but at first people just grew it at home and didn’t want to share it. Now they have to, out of need.”
For the weed growers, there are pros and cons to the cartel-free business. Without the help of drug trafficking organizations, producers can’t rely on their infrastructure and have to create their own logistical networks, making contact with dealers and then getting their produce to them in cities around Mexico.
“I know a lot of dealers distributing cannabis in Mexico City and they’re making deals directly with producers,” said Zara Snapp, founder of the Instituto RIA, which carries out research and advocacy on drug policy. Producers and dealers said weed is being transported by car, motorbike and even messenger services around the country.
“You’re not benefiting from any cartel protection structures or mechanism,” said Jaime Lopez, a security analyst. The fact that the market is, as yet, small means that it’s easy to stay low-profile. “As long as you stay small and not too flashy you might avoid the vultures. But that’s a big if.”
And there are barriers to entry. Farmers like Ricardo and Lazaro are in the minority. Most humble farmers in the mountains of major drug producing states such as Sinaloa and Guerrero could not afford the investment required to create the kind of growing environments needed to produce refined weed.
“We plant [cronica] in houses with fertilizers and lights and temperature control so it’s more expensive to produce,” Lazaro said. If growers plant outside, the seeds are more expensive, and fertilizers add costs.
That said, producers now have more control over their business and don’t have to comply with the low prices set by violent cartel middlemen. They can also market their weed differently.
“I think cannabis that is marketed as 'blood free' or ethical sells better. People are more likely to ask where their weed is coming from and that is a big shift,” Snapp said.
And although investment may be higher, so are the profits, which the farmers no longer have to share with criminal gangs. The farmers are selling the finer weed for a lot more money than the run of the mill mountain-side stuff ever used to go for.
A dealer in Mexico City told VICE that he buys half a kilo of this new, quality cannabis from Sinaloa for between 30,000 to 40,000 pesos ($1,278 – $1,700). That’s a massive price difference compared to what Lazaro and Ricardo got for ordinary mountain weed, which moves for a maximum of just 600 pesos ($25) a kilo.
“I get a product called Blue Dreams from Sinaloa, and it is still the product most in demand,” said a dealer in Mexico City. Blue Dreams sells for 200 pesos ($8.50) a gram. He also buys high-end weed from other suppliers in different states in Mexico because they’re cheaper.
Crime syndicates such as the Sinaloa Cartel and the New Generation Jalisco Cartel have over the last decade realigned their drug portfolios around cocaine and heroin as well as synthetics like methamphetamine and fentanyl as the demand for Mexican weed for American dried up with legalization. Weed no longer makes big business sense to them.
On the steeply sloping mountains of Sinaloa where Lazaro lives, farmers cultivating swathes of waist-high cannabis plants is becoming a thing of the past. State-level cannabis legalization in the United States – the main destination for Mexican weed for decades – all but wiped out the market for regular marijuana from farmers such as Lazaro. As the cartels, which would buy it from him and transport it across the border to the U.S, have seen demand dry up, many farmers have stopped bothering to plant it.
Mexico’s drug plantation landscape has seen much change in the last decade. Heroin poppy replaced the profits generated by cannabis for farmers as the U.S. opioid crisis generated new demand for Mexican heroin. But subsequent oversupply combined with the arrival of the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl in the drug portfolio of Mexico’s crime syndicates eventually battered the price of poppy paste, shrinking poppy growing profits.
That Mexico City vendors are seeing a growing demand for high-end weed is a new phenomenon. Yet after months of what the dealer described as “record sales,” growth in the market is limited right now due to the current coronavirus lockdown and a drop in income for many of his customers in the cities.
Will Mexico’s currently small-scale, ethical boutique weed trade last? The bigger the market, and growers, get, the more likely they are to attract the attention of predators. “If these guys become truly profitable they might find themselves on the wrong end of racketeering efforts by men with guns,” said Lopez.
And once legalization arrives in Mexico, which is expected to happen this year, the window for these small-scale farmers could close as big business enters the fray. There’s nothing to stop the cartels getting involved in the legal trade, should they think it’s worth their while, and legal companies are already circling.
“The question is how big a market is this and the capabilities that legal players would bring in after legalization. If they open the market we might see an influx of venture capital money as we have seen in the states,” said Lopez.
For now, these producers would do well to emphasize the cartel-free nature of their wares, said Lopez. “Based on my understanding of millennial and post-millennial spending habits, some sort of ethical labelling and branding would seem like a good road to go down. I know it would certainly make a difference to me.”
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