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Marijuana availability is high throughout the United States, and abuse of the drug is higher than for any other drug. The high demand for marijuana has prompted DTOs and criminal groups to engage in large-scale cannabis cultivation in the United States and to smuggle thousands of metric tons of marijuana from Mexico and, to a much lesser extent, Canada into the United States for distribution. Mexican criminal groups operate large outdoor cannabis plots, often composed of several thousand plants, particularly on public lands in western states. Caucasian criminal groups, especially in Appalachian communities, cultivate significant amounts of cannabis, typically in smaller plots (100 to 200 plants). Some cannabis growers, particularly Caucasian criminal groups, have shifted from outdoor cannabis cultivation to indoor cultivation to gain higher profits generated from the production of higher-quality indoor marijuana. The shift from outdoor to indoor cultivation by some criminal groups has contributed to an overall rise in indoor cannabis cultivation nationally; however, most of the increase in indoor cannabis cultivation is attributable to increased large-scale indoor cultivation by Asian DTOs, including some Asian DTOs from Canada.

Strategic Findings

Levels of marijuana use are higher than those for any other drug, particularly among adults; however, rates of marijuana use are decreasing among adolescents. According to NSDUH data, 25,085,000 individuals aged 12 and older used marijuana in 2007, much higher than for any other drug surveyed, including pharmaceutical drugs (16,280,000) and cocaine (5,738,000). Rates of past year use are highest among adults aged 18 to 25, and use of the drug is stable for that age group (see Table B6 in Appendix B). However, rates of past year use for adolescents aged 12 to 17 declined from 15.0 percent in 2003 to 12.5 percent in 2007. Furthermore, MTF data show that rates of past year use among eighth, tenth, and twelfth graders have decreased overall since 2003. In particular, data show a significant decrease between 2006 and 2007 MTF in rates of past year use among eighth graders and a slight decline among tenth graders. (See Table B7 in Appendix B.)

The average potency of marijuana increased in 2007 to the highest levels ever recorded, likely because of increased demand for higher-potency marijuana and improvements in cultivation techniques. According to University of Mississippi Potency Monitoring Project (PMP) data, the average THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) content in tested samples of marijuana in 2007 increased to the highest level ever recorded--9.64 percent in 2007, rising from 8.77 in 2006 (see Figure 12). The tested samples consisted of marijuana seized from eradicated plots in the United States, Mexico, and Canada, and samples from interdiction seizures. According to law enforcement reporting, marijuana producers have consistently increased the average potency of marijuana through improved cultivation techniques, particularly at indoor grow sites but also at outdoor sites, to meet rising demand for higher-potency marijuana. In addition, rising demand for high-potency marijuana may increase the production and availability of high-potency THC products such as hashish and hash oil. These products typically contain much higher concentrations of THC than processed marijuana.7

Figure 12. Average Percentage of THC in Samples of Seized Marijuana, 1985-2007

Graph showing the average percentage of THC in samples of seized marijuana for the years 1985-2007, broken down by year.

Source: University of Mississippi Potency Monitoring Project.

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Indoor cannabis cultivation is increasing nationally because of high profit margins and seemingly reduced risk of law enforcement detection. The number of indoor cannabis grow sites seized and indoor cannabis plants eradicated by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies has increased significantly since 2003 (see Figure 13). Many cultivators, particularly Caucasian groups, have relocated or established their operations indoors because of the reduced risk of law enforcement detection in comparison with outdoor grows, which are increasingly targeted by vigorous outdoor cannabis eradication operations. Indoor cannabis cultivators are also able to generate higher profit margins from indoor-produced marijuana, since controlled growing conditions generally yield higher-potency marijuana. For example, the wholesale price for domestic high-potency marijuana ranges from $2,500 to $6,000 a pound in Los Angeles, California, while the wholesale price for midgrade marijuana is approximately $750 a pound, according to the Los Angeles County Regional Criminal Information Clearinghouse (LACRCIC). Additionally, indoor cannabis cultivators are able to cultivate year-round with four to six harvests a year, compared with one or two harvests a year typical of outdoor cultivation.

Figure 13. Indoor Cannabis Plants Eradicated Nationally, 2003-2007

Graph showing the number of indoor cannabis plants eradicated nationally, for the years 2003-2007, broken down by year.

Source: Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program.

Indoor cannabis cultivation is most prevalent in western states; however, indoor cultivation in eastern states, particularly Florida and Georgia, increased sharply in 2007. Indoor cannabis grow operations are most pervasive in western states, largely because of the exploitation of medical marijuana laws in some states and the expansion of large-scale, Asian-operated indoor grow sites in California, Oregon, and Washington. According to Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program (DCE/SP) data, 53 percent (231,914 of 434,728) of indoor plants eradicated nationally in 2007 were in California (160,138), Oregon (16,281), and Washington (55,495). However, indoor eradication is also increasing in eastern states. DCE/SP data show that the number of indoor cannabis plants eradicated from indoor grow sites from the eastern states that compose the Florida/Caribbean, Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic, New England, New York/New Jersey, and Southeast Regions increased 46 percent from 2006 (110,911 plants) to 2007 (162,071 plants). Indoor cannabis cultivation was particularly high in Florida, where Cuban criminal groups operate a rising number of indoor grow sites. DCE/SP data for 2007 show that indoor plant eradication in Florida and Georgia increased 123 percent from 2006 (37,782) to 2007 (84,283), and the number of indoor grow sites seized increased 115 percent from 2006 (488 sites) to 2007 (1,048 sites).

Asian DTOs and criminal groups have increased their indoor cannabis cultivation operations in many states; some of these groups are linked in a nationwide criminal network. Asian criminal groups, including some that have relocated from Canada to the United States, have established cannabis cultivation operations throughout the United States. Recent law enforcement reporting reveals that Asian DTOs and criminal groups expanded indoor cultivation operations in 2007 in several areas of the country, including southern and eastern states. Some Asian DTOs that operate grow sites in western states are linked organizationally to groups in other regions of the country, suggesting coordination among some Asian DTOs cultivating cannabis in separate regions of the country.

Outdoor cannabis eradication has increased dramatically since 2004, particularly eradication of plots established on public lands. Cannabis eradication data show a sharp increase in the number of cannabis plants eradicated nationally from 2004 through 2007 (see Figure 14). Most eradication occurred in western states, where Mexican criminal groups maintain numerous large plots; in the southeastern United States, however, a regional drought in 2007 severely curtailed outdoor cultivation and, consequently, eradication results. DCE/SP data show that eradication in California, Oregon, and Washington accounted for 80.2 percent (5,293,401 of 6,599,599 plants) of all outdoor eradication in 2007. Much of the increase in cannabis eradication totals during that period is the result of increased eradication from cannabis plots on public lands. According to Department of the Interior (DOI)8 and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest System data, the number of plants eradicated on public lands increased 168 percent between 2004 and 2007 (986,546 to 2,639,244 plants) (see Figure 14). The rise in cannabis eradication on public lands likely reflects both increased cultivation and increased efforts by law enforcement agencies to locate and eradicate cannabis on those lands.

Figure 14. Outdoor Cannabis Plants Eradicated Nationally, 2004-2007

Graph showing the number of outdoor cannabis plants eradicated nationally, for the years 2004-2007, broken down by year.

Source: Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program; U.S. Department of the Interior; U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service.

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Despite the high level of domestic marijuana production by indoor and outdoor cannabis cultivators, marijuana flow from Mexico has remained high and possibly increased in 2007. Drug seizure data indicate that the flow of marijuana from Mexico into the United States has remained at high levels during a period of increasing domestic marijuana production. NSS data show that the amount of marijuana seized at or between POEs along the Southwest Border decreased from 2003 through 2005 and increased slightly in 2006 (see Figure 15). However, the amount of marijuana seized along the Southwest Border increased 23 percent from 2006 (1,138,366 kg) to 2007 (1,394,562 kg), a possible indication of increased flow of the drug from Mexico to the United States in 2007. Data indicate that increased seizures continued in 2008, with seizures for the first half of 2008 outpacing the average seizure rate from 2002 through 2006.

Figure 15. Southwest Border Marijuana Seizures, in Kilograms, 2003-2008*

Graph showing Southwest Border marijuana seizures, in kilograms, for the years 2003-2008.

Source: National Seizure System.
* Data run December 1, 2008.

According to law enforcement officials, the possible 2007 increase in marijuana flow from Mexico may be the result of Mexican criminal groups attempting to supplement marijuana supplies because of significant crop losses in the United States. Exceptionally high domestic cannabis eradication during 2007, supported by several large, well-coordinated outdoor eradication initiatives in western states, may have temporarily reduced some supplies of domestically produced marijuana. Also, during 2007 severe drought in the southeastern and Mid-Atlantic regions limited outdoor cannabis cultivation and reduced the availability of locally produced marijuana. The combination of exceptionally high eradication in western states and drought in some cultivation areas in eastern states may have prompted Mexican criminal groups to increase the flow of marijuana produced in Mexico (see text box) to the United States.

Marijuana Production in Mexico Shifting Closer to the U.S. Border

Mexico is the primary foreign source of marijuana in the United States. According to U.S. Government estimates, approximately 15,500 metric tons of marijuana were produced in Mexico in 2007, primarily for export to the United States. The GOM reports that in 2007 approximately 30,000 hectares of cannabis were eradicated primarily from nine states (Chihuahua, Durango, Guerrero, Jalisco, Michoacán, Nayarit, Oaxaca, Sinaloa, and Sonora), where cultivation and eradication activities are most concentrated. Marijuana production is highest in Guerrero, Nayarit, and Michoacán. However, according to intelligence reporting, since the 1990s, Mexican DTOs have relocated many of their cannabis-growing operations from Guerrero, Michoacán, and Nayarit to remote mountain areas of Durango, Sinaloa, and Sonora in central and northern Mexico. Intelligence reports indicate that this relocation is likely a reaction to sustained high levels of detection and eradication in traditional growing areas as well as a desire by Mexican DTOs to reduce transportation costs to the Southwest Border and gain more direct access to drug markets in the United States.

Cannabis cultivation in Canada is increasing in Ontario and Quebec, potentially resulting in increased marijuana smuggling into the northeastern United States. Although seizures of Canadian marijuana have declined at the U.S.-Canada border, Canada remains a source of marijuana--particularly high-grade marijuana--to U.S. drug markets. According to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), 1,749,057 cannabis plants were eradicated by law enforcement agencies in 2006, the most recent data available. Despite strong eradication, however, RCMP estimates that criminal groups produce between 1,399 and 3,498 metric tons of marijuana in Canada each year, with most destined for consumers in Canada.

Law enforcement reporting indicates that a portion of the marijuana production in Canada is shifting from western to eastern provinces. According to the RCMP, approximately 90 percent of Canadian marijuana is produced in British Columbia (primarily indoor grow sites) and in Ontario and Quebec (primarily outdoor grow sites). Although marijuana production in British Columbia in western Canada remains very high, seizures of grow sites in that province have declined since 2003. During the same period, seizures of both indoor and outdoor grow sites increased in eastern Canada, particularly Ontario and Quebec. Reasons for the eastward shift in Canadian cannabis cultivation likely include increased law enforcement pressure in British Columbia and displacement of DTOs and criminal groups to other areas of Canada and to California and the U.S. Pacific Northwest. The eastward shift in cannabis cultivation in Canada likely will result in increased marijuana smuggling through eastern POEs along the U.S.-Canada border.

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Intelligence Gap

No reliable estimates are available regarding the amount of domestically cultivated or processed marijuana. The amount of marijuana available--including marijuana produced both domestically and internationally--in the United States is unknown, and estimates about the availability of domestically cultivated and produced marijuana are not feasible because of variations in estimates regarding the number of cannabis plants not eradicated during the most recent eradication season, cannabis eradication effectiveness, and plant-yield estimates.


The production of hashish and hash oil may become increasingly common as demand for marijuana products with higher THC content increases. Rising demand by marijuana users for high-potency marijuana could result in increased domestic production of hashish and hash oil that typically have much higher THC content than marijuana. Production of hashish and hash oil is limited in the United States and appears to be largely concentrated in western states, particularly California. NSS data show only 19 THC-extraction and hash oil laboratory seizures in the United States in 2002 through 2008. However, some law enforcement officials believe that hashish production and hash oil laboratories may be underreported in the United States because such laboratories have rarely been encountered in the past and, as such, are not easily identifiable. Expanded production of hashish and hash oil could yield very high profits for criminal groups. For example, LACRCIC reports that the price for high-potency sinsemilla ranges from $2,500 to $6,000 per pound in southern California, compared with hashish that sells for $8,000 per pound.

Asian DTOs--some closely connected--in the United States likely will expand indoor grow operations beyond their primary operating areas. Asian DTOs will very likely continue to expand their U.S.-based indoor cannabis cultivation operations beyond traditional operating areas in the Pacific Northwest and, to a lesser extent, New England. Asian DTOs have already expanded their indoor cannabis cultivation operations in 2007 to new areas including Atlanta, Cleveland, Denver, Houston, and Los Angeles. This type of expansion will likely continue in 2008 and 2009 as these groups seek emerging markets for their drug.

End Notes

7. According to the University of Mississippi Potency Monitoring Project, the average THC content for hashish was 24.41% in 2008.
8. Department of the Interior (DOI) lands include Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service lands. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest System lands include all national forest lands.

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