MEXICO CITY -- The most sought-after marijuana being trafficked across the U.S.-Mexico border is now the weed entering Mexico, not the weed leaving it.
Cannabis sold legally in California is heading south illegally, dominating a booming boutique market across Mexico, where buying and selling the drug is still outlawed. Mexican dealers flaunt their U.S. products, noting them in bold lettering on menus sent to select clients: "IMPORTADO."
Traffickers from California load their suitcases with U.S.-grown marijuana before hopping on planes to Mexico, or walking across the pedestrian border crossing into Tijuana. One car was recently stopped entering Tijuana with 5,600 jars of gummies infused with THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. But relatively few of the southbound traffickers are caught -- even as their contraband doubles or triples in value as soon as it enters Mexico.
"The demand here for American weed has exploded," said one dealer in Mexico City, who estimated that 60% of the marijuana he sells now comes from California. The dealer spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of arrest. "It's aspirational for many of my clients. They want to be seen smoking the best stuff, the stuff rappers brag about smoking."
Over nearly a century, the U.S. spent billions of dollars combating drug trafficking from Mexico -- and for many years marijuana was at the center of that effort. The strains smoked by American actors and rock stars pointed to Mexico's geography: Acapulco Gold, Michoacan Cream, Jarilla Sinaloa.
The weed in those days arrived on speedboats, through tunnels and even by slingshot. Sometimes the marijuana drug "mules" that crossed the Rio Grande were actually horses.
But as some states, including California, legalized cannabis and professionalized its production, the world's most famous cannabis strains -- with a new string of American names like Girl Scout Cookies and Bubba Kush -- could suddenly be purchased just north of the U.S.-Mexico border, including at outlet malls walking distance from Mexican territory.
At Urbn Leaf, a marijuana dispensary in San Ysidro, Calif., a few hundred yards from the border into Mexico at Tijuana, owner Josh Bubeck estimates that 55% of his customers are Mexican nationals. His employees warn them that bringing marijuana back to Mexico is a violation of Mexican law, but to work at Urbn Leaf is to understand the draw.
"Nobody is going to grow cannabis better than California probably ever," Bubeck said.
Back in Mexico, he said, especially for younger smokers, the appeal is clear: "You're showing 'This is what I'm about. I'm a bad ass. I got this from America.'"
For years, advocates of legalizing marijuana in Mexico have argued that the country could establish an enormously profitable industry, given its years of producing the drug illicitly. The Sinaloa Cartel has reportedly been looking into establishing its own legal cannabis subsidiary in Mexico.
But legalization has moved much faster in parts of the U.S. than in Mexico, giving places like California a huge advantage. Some California weed farms have even hired Mexican migrant workers to tend their fields. The state's cannabis industry produced $4.4 billion in sales in 2020.
This July, Mexico's supreme court struck down laws which criminalized the cultivation of cannabis for personal use. But lawmakers have not yet passed legislation that would allow for a commercial marijuana market. It is still technically illegal to buy or sell marijuana, and it is nearly impossible to regulate the quality of Mexican cannabis products available on the illegal market.
"Mexicans want to try what they see in music video, in movies, in media, and that's usually American," said another dealer in Mexico City, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of arrest. "We still have this idea that the best products come from the U.S."