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Budget Cuts Allow Mexican Cartels to Grow Pot in U.S. Parks

Budget Cuts Allow Mexican Cartels to Grow Pot in U.S. Parks

Ultra-violent Mexican drug cartels are growing marijuana in our national parks and forests across 16 U.S. states, and our federal government doesn’t care. At least, that’s how it comes across when one sees that President Obama’s proposed 2013 budget cuts the National Guard’s Counterdrug program almost in half.

One might ask, "What does the National Guard have to do with Mexican cartels and marijuana?" It’s true that the Guard is known to most Americans as the soldiers who provide assistance during natural disasters and riots, and many also know that thousands of Guard members have been deployed to our southwest border to assist the U.S. Border Patrol. But what a lot of people don’t know is that our National Guard is the spearhead for detecting and eradicating marijuana plantations—sometimes containing over 100,000 plants, worth up to $3,000 each—created and heavily guarded by Mexican cartels on US public lands.

There are generally two kinds of people who grow marijuana in the US. First, there are Americans, who cultivate it indoors or in relatively small patches for personal use or for sale at a dispensary in states where medicinal use is legal. Broadly speaking, this kind of marijuana is more specialized, of higher quality, and more expensive than bud grown in mass quantities.

That’s where the second group comes in. Mexican drug cartels are like the Walmart of pot growers; they grow marijuana in plantations that cover an estimated two million acres of U.S. forest, and are easily the biggest supplier of the finished product to American consumers. While mass outdoor-grown marijuana is cheaper than its indoor cousin, the quality is lower—something that doesn’t matter much to a cash-strapped college student.

While medicinal marijuana is legal under state law in 16 U.S. states, plus the District of Columbia, its manufacture and use is still illegal under federal law. If the federal government decides to investigate and prosecute dispensaries and the growers who supply them, it’s usually the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and local law enforcement who deal with them.

Marijuana grows being tended and defended by heavily armed Mexican cartel employees, however, are a different story. The grow sites are usually well hidden in the interior parts of parks and forests. Aerial reconnaissance and a trained and experienced eye are the surest ways to find them, although hikers have been known to stumble upon them on occasion. The National Guard has the helicopters and surveillance equipment and trained eyes to get this done.

They can’t do it alone, of course. Since the National Guard has no arrest authority, they rely on the cooperation of state and local law enforcement agencies to help them. Likewise, those agencies rely heavily on National Guard experience and equipment they don’t have. The cuts Obama is proposing for the next fiscal year are eliminating helicopters as an option for many states. They’re not being evenly distributed, with Oregon getting a 66 percent cut and Kentucky a 70 percent cut—two states where cartel-run marijuana grows are rampant.

In an April 2012 letter to the Chair and Ranking Member of the US Senate Appropriations Committee, Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley said of the cuts, “This level of funding would significantly reduce, if not eliminate, all counter-drug air support for law enforcement within Oregon… Unfortunately, the budget proposed by the Administration would effectively surrender our national forests in Oregon and along the west coast to these drug traffickers.”

Pro-legalization advocates have jumped on these budget cuts as a sign that Obama is easing up on his anti-drug policy; one journalist referred to it as a possible “pivot point” in his views against marijuana. But the cuts in these programs likely have nothing to do with the President’s views on legalization. The National Guard isn’t sent in to raid dispensaries or someone’s basement with a hydroponic and ultraviolet light setup. They’re trained to go in after multi-acre pot plantations worth millions of dollars that are being guarded by foreign nationals with automatic weapons—on U.S. soil, no less. Under the 2013 budget, that can’t effectively happen.

This is the same Administration that has claimed our southwest border has never been safer or more secure, and has not mentioned Mexico’s drug war or border security once in the last four State of the Union addresses. Yet, when confronted with solid evidence that Mexican cartels have a definitive and dangerous presence in our taxpayer-funded national parks and forests where families hike and camp, it seems uninterested in confronting the threat.

If the Obama Administration is serious about cracking down on Mexican drug cartels and their presence in the US, then it needs to increase, not slash, funding to the National Guard Counterdrug program—which the U.S. House Appropriations Committee actually recommended. Fortunately, there is still time to eliminate these cuts, as the appropriations process is ongoing. Sadly, the inaction of the federal government in confronting drug cartels here at home speaks volumes more than its words regarding the alleged safety and security of our southwest border.


Sylvia Longmire is a former senior border security analyst for the State of California. She is currently a consultant, correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine, and the author of "Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico's Drug Wars"

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