Drug Decriminalization Behind Terrifying Cartel-Style Killings In California
"You do not want this to become the norm in the United States"
Over the last 30 years, many voters and policymakers in California and other states came to believe that decriminalizing drugs would reduce and even end drug-related violence in America. As drugs like marijuana were decriminalized and penalties for the possession of harder drugs were reduced from felonies to misdemeanors, the thinking went, we would see a decline in criminal gangs, mafias, and cartels that use violence to control production and distribution and to resolve disputes over market territory.
It’s now clear that the opposite has occurred. California’s marijuana decriminalization incentivized Mexican drug cartels to create illegal farms in the state’s redwood forests and bring their criminal lifestyles along with them. Cartel-connected murders, gun fights, sex trafficking, and missing persons are on the rise in Humboldt County. Environmental pollution from illegal pot farms is increasing. And the cartels have so frightened residents that they asked reporters with The Los Angeles Times not to use their names.
Meanwhile, California’s 2014 reduction of drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, and the de facto decriminalization of open-air drug markets by the city governments of San Francisco and Los Angeles, greatly expanded the reach of the Sinaloa cartel. Young men from Honduras, who are in the U.S. illegally, and protected by California’s sanctuary laws, publicly deal drugs supplied by the cartel in downtown San Francisco.
Just last week, a small town in California’s Central Valley saw a cartel-style killing of six people, including a 72-year-old woman, a 16-year-old girl, and her 10-month-old baby who she was cradling in her arms as she ran away from the killers. The massacre has raised the specter that the brutal violence that plagues much of Mexico, including the killing of children and family members by drug cartels, has arrived in the U.S. The killing occurred in the small city of Goshen, about a 30-minute drive southeast of Fresno on highway 99.
“We don't know what it is yet,” said reporter Ioan Grillo, a journalist who has covered the Mexican drug cartels for 20 years. “I'd be surprised if the cartels were directly doing it because the Sinaloa cartel doesn’t want to bring all the heat on their people in the area. But whatever it is, I think it's significant. You do not want this to become the norm in the United States, where cartels are everywhere.”
Grillo noted that the Mexican mafia in the 1990s banned drive-by shootings by its members because they killed too many bystanders. Other gangs followed, resulting in a significant decline in homicides in California from the 1990s through the early 2000s. By contrast, the Mexican cartel has routinely used psychotic and sadistic mafia hitmen, known as sicarios, to kill, torture, and rape family members of their competitors.
Decriminalization need not result in open-air drug dealing, unregulated marijuana cultivation, and cartel-style killings. The Netherlands allows for the sale and consumption of marijuana, and both the Netherlands and Portugal have reduced penalties for drug possession. But neither country allows open-air drug dealing or drug use. And both put pressure on drug addicts to recover from their addiction, interdict hard drug distribution, and tightly control the production and sale of marijuana.
And though we don’t yet know who was behind the cartel-style killing, Grillo expressed fears that the violence signified a changing of norms. “It could be they’ve started not respecting the rules anymore and are like, ‘We're gonna teach them a lesson! We don't care!’ Or it could be that it was done by some renegade members of the cartels, or by people from Mexico who have been in the cartel wars in Mexico.”
What, exactly, is going on? Why did decriminalization in California go so totally awry? And what can be done to prevent the United States from going the way of Mexico?