The European country of Luxembourg (also called the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg), which shares borders with Belgium, Germany and France, has a population of approximately 62,000 people. As one of the 27 countries that make up the European Union (EU), it could officially become the first in the EU to legalize cannabis cultivation.
The Luxembourg government announced on October 22 that it would be changing its laws on cannabis, with the intention of legalizing cultivation as well as personal consumption. The changes are included in a defense measure (which includes a total of 27 measures targeted at drug-related crime) that is targeting drug crimes in the country, according to Minister of Justice Sam Tanson.
“We thought we had to act, we have an issue with drugs and cannabis is the drug that is most used and is a large part of the illegal market,” Tamson said at a press conference. “We want to start by allowing people to grow it at home. The idea is that a consumer is not in an illegal situation if he consumes cannabis and that we don’t support the whole illegal chain from production to transportation to selling where there is a lot of misery attached. We want to do everything we can to get more and more away from the illegal black market.”
Adults over 18 years old would be allowed to cultivate up to four of their own cannabis plants at home. The location of these plants would be permitted in any residence, both indoors or outdoors, as well as on balconies, terraces and gardens. According to The Guardian, cannabis seeds would also be legal to obtain. Cannabis seeds would eventually be sold in shops, or purchasable online. Luxembourg officials also altered the punishment of possession.
The consumption or possession of cannabis under three grams is now a misdemeanor instead of a criminal offense. Prior to these new changes, a possession fine ranged from €251 to €2,500. “Above three grams, nothing changes, you will be considered a dealer,” Tanson said at the press conference. “Nothing changes for car drivers either: there is still zero tolerance.”
The reasoning behind Luxembourg officials’ decision to embrace cannabis is to curb the growth of illegal sales on the black market. However, this is only the beginning of the country’s path toward legalization. Tanson described the October 22 announcement as “a first step in our project to legalize recreational cannabis.” No announcement was made in regards to an official launch date, since this legislation is not yet set in stone. It must pass through the Chamber of Deputies next. According to translated text from the Luxemburger Wort, a local Luxembourg newspaper, Tanson expects “further measures to be taken by the end of the term, in 2023.”
One of Luxembourg’s three political parties, The Greens, posted a press release expressing the party’s approval of cannabis legislation. “The war on cannabis has failed. The announcements by Justice Minister Sam Tanson represent a fundamental reorientation of Luxembourg’s drug policy,” the press release states. “Finally, the use of cannabis is being regulated and a legal alternative to the black market is being created. This sets the course for a comprehensive regulation of cultivation and distribution. We expressly welcome the fact that the government will continue to push ahead with the coalition agreement project.”
Luxembourg has been previously committed to cannabis legalization in the past, having announced in August 2019 that it wanted to be the first EU country to legalize cannabis production and consumption. At the time, former Luxembourg Health Minister Etienne Schneider cited the failures of prohibition, and called upon other EU countries to loosen their own drug laws in relation to cannabis. Some reports shared that Luxembourg was using Canada’s approach to legalization. Schneider and other officials also toured a Canopy Growth Corporation facility in Smith Falls Canada back in 2018.
Previously, Luxembourg legalized medical cannabis in 2017, with its program having launched in 2018. The country could soon join other countries such as Uruguay, which legalized recreational cannabis in 2013, and Canada, which legalized in 2018, as well as numerous states in the U.S.
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The Mojave is a vast, forty-eight thousand square-mile stretch of wide open land dotted with captivating desert vegetation, charming small towns, compelling roadside attractions, and lately, a rising number of illegal cannabis grow ops.
Many in the industry already anticipated it would be this way, but cannabis legalization has not gone as expected in California. Not only is tax revenue short of the predicted mark, but the situation is actually so bad that a $100 million dollar industry bailout has been proposed. Seems strange, considering how many people we all know that smoke weed and use other cannabis products; but there is one major roadblock in the success of the golden state’s pot program – the still-thriving black market.
We all see the unlicensed shops with minimal overhead costs and no permit fees, offering prices and incentives that regular stores simply can’t compete with. But that’s not where it starts, the root of the problem begins with the thousands of illegal grow ops appearing all over rural parts of the state, the Mojave Desert as of late.
They are sometimes brushed off by locals because “it’s just weed” and many small communities in the US have bigger drug problems to worry about than pot. And yes, as someone that is a firm supporter of fair cannabis legislation and safe access for all, I fully understand that we couldn’t have gotten to the point we are now without breaking rules along the way. However, as a naturalist and conservationist, I also see a different side to it. The problem here is not the growing of the pot (which I support and do myself), but rather, the way many of these large-scale cultivators operate.
The often-overlooked negative impacts of illegal grows – especially in a desert – run the gamut from tapping into scarce local water sources, to polluting the surrounding environment, producing unsafe low-quality products, and undermining the efforts of companies that are operating legally.
What’s is most troubling… in this region of the world that is particularly strapped for water, over 1,000 unlicensed cannabis grows have been discovered in the past few years. It takes about 150 gallons of water to grow one pound of weed. If each of these farms are growing upwards of a few thousand plants (at least), what does that mean for the future of the Mojave, its wildlife, and its residents?
The cannabis industry is so much more complex than others. Not only is it new and rapidly growing, but people working in this sector face many challenges that are hard to fathom for people working in nearly any other field. While most of our industry is on the up-and-up, there are still a few seedy things going on below the surface sometimes. Once issues like these are resolved, more people will have faith in the industry and it will be easier to push for fair legislation and safe access for all. For more articles like this one, make sure to subscribe to The Medical Cannabis Weekly Newsletter, your hub for all things industry-related.
Benefits of Growing at Home
I definitely do not want anyone to get the wrong idea here. I am 100% in agreeance with people being allowed to grow cannabis at home for personal use. I also believe most of the existing plant limitations (like 6 per household, for example) are too low. Home cultivation is gaining traction, according to a National Gardening Survey that found roughly 15% of households in legal states are currently growing cannabis or have previously tried to.
At the end of the day, there are undeniable benefits to growing your own flower. For example, lower costs, a consistent supply, and cleaner higher quality products are all benefits of at-home cultivation. Growing bud is something every medical cannabis patient or recreational user should strongly consider, especially if you use daily and it’s something that is consuming a lot of your money.
That said, there is also a huge need for professional cultivators, because let’s face it, not everyone has the time or the green thumb for growing at home. Black market growers can get away with random strain names, vague descriptions, and wavering consistency; that’s not the case for legal commercial growers. Anyone following the rules has very strict regulations they need to follow when it comes to quality standards, lab testing, product labeling, and so forth.
Again, the issue in this particular situation is the way cannabis is grown at these illicit set ups. Let’s pretend all the illegal grow ops were being considerate of the environment and wildlife, procuring their water in legal ways, and not using dangerous pesticides in their products – then there would be absolutely no issue with growing illegally, even at a larger scale.
“Large-scale marijuana grows can inflict tremendous damage on desert lands and resources,” said Cody Hanford, deputy executive director of the nonprofit Mojave Desert Land Trust. “In preparation for growing, parcels are often scraped of vegetation, killing both plants and wildlife, including desert tortoise. Deep depressions are dug into the earth, and wells are dug to draw water from aquifers.”
According to the California Marijuana Enforcement Team (MET), a special unit tasked solely with investigating cultivation violations, there are over 1,000 confirmed illegal grow ops in the Mojave desert region of Southern California. It’s hard to say exactly how much pot is grown in at these illicit farms, but it’s a lot. For example, last month Antelope Valley law enforcement conducted a raid of 205 illegal cannabis grows which resulted in 131 arrests and the seizure of over 33,000 pounds of weed. At 150 gallons of water per pound of cannabis, that equals 4,950,000 gallons of water used by only a fraction of the illegal operations that have been currently discovered.
Twentynine Palms, my hometown, and the surrounding desert region known as Wonder Valley, is a particular hotbed for these set ups. The problem is this area is a true desert with very little rain or periods of humidity throughout the year. San Bernardino County averages 15 inches of rainfall annually, but 29 Palms only gets about 6 inches. While other illegal grows are situated in areas that at least make more sense geographically, like Humboldt County which averages 55 inches of rainfall per year, and is coastal so there is also more natural humidity in the air; desert grows are unsustainable in the long run.
To make matters worse, massive areas of important vegetation and crucial wildlife habitats are being gutted to make room for these enterprises. “Our desert is being destroyed as we live and breathe,” says Tom Egan, Wildlife Biologist and California Desert Representative at Defenders of Wildlife. “Barren expanse levelled for unregulated cannabis cultivation – in a very dense tortoise population area designated as critical habitat for this species and per our research, may be completely extirpated from the western Mojave wilds within 20 years. Further, the area is crucial habitat for the threatened Mohave ground squirrel.”
“Some people have a deep abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country… And some people don’t…” Egan added.
Also of major concern is the use of dangerous pesticides. Not only is that bad for consumers who are potentially smoking pot laced with toxic chemicals, but runoff and disposal of these materials is threatening the landscape in unimaginable ways. At a recent bust in Lancaster, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Fish & Game were called upon the discovery of two dead bears near the area. Necropsy showed that illegal pesticides where the cause of death. It has also been reported that it’s common for growers at these sites to bury containers of sewage and other garbage below the desert floor. After windstorms, a lot of trash can surface.
Most Precious Desert Resource
Let’s talk a bit more about water. We already discussed how much water the region gets and an estimate of how much goes toward illegal pot; but what we didn’t cover yet is how exactly these cultivators are even obtaining so much water. The short answer, a lot of it is stolen.
Pot growers are certainly not the only ones stealing water, and with California experiencing record droughts, water theft across the state is at an all-time high. There are numerous ways this can be done – like pulling water from remote filling stations, tapping into area fire hydrants, pumping water from rivers, lakes, dams, reservoirs, and pipelines, and even stealing water from homes and farms that run off private wells. By the second quarter of this year, 126 Californians have already reported water thefts to state authorities, which more than double from a decade ago.
Some thieves have even resorted to conducting elaborate break-ins of pressurized water mains, a dangerous and potentially destructive method referred to as hot-tapping. In Antelope Valley, there used to be an average of 2 hot-tapping incidents per year. In 2020, about a dozen had been reported and that number is still rising. Every water main break-in can result in “over $10,000 worth of equipment damage”, says Anish Saraiya, public works deputy for the Los Angeles County Supervisor.
Undermining Legal Operations
Starting a business in California can be difficult, but opening a cannabis business in the state is especially challenging. Don’t get me wrong, this industry can make you incredibly successful in CA, but it won’t come easy. Whether you intend on opening a dispensary, running a delivery service, or plan to set up as a cultivator, prepare to spend a ridiculous amount of money on licensing and fees, more than startups in any other industry.
Then, you will need to pick the location of your business. This can be problematic if you plan on growing because it will require a lot of space, which is not cheap in California, and you will need to find an area that allows cannabis cultivation, as it is prohibited in many localities. Most experts agree that it can take an initial investment upwards of $500,000 to get your foot in the door of California’s legal cannabis industry – not to mention the annual overhead costs, exorbitant taxes, and the list goes on and on.
All that blood, sweat, tears, and cold hard cash, and legal operators are still stuck competing with underground businesses who do not have to worry about any of the aforementioned stresses. Cameron Wald, executive vice president of Project Cannabis, which owns four stores in LA, said the illegal dispensaries can profit in ways completely out of reach for legal businesses. “We have outrageous price compression that we have to see at our stores to compete with people that are not paying their taxes,” he said. “They’re not paying their permitting fees. They’re not paying the city.”
New Frontier Data, a Denver-based company that studies cannabis trends, estimates there are $70 billion in illegal sales nationally — making it seven times the size of the legal market. “This means the legal market is capturing only a fraction of total demand,” the company said in a summary of U.S. cannabis demand trends released this month.
Those operating illegal businesses aren’t bound by the same laws that legal ones are, such as limits on daily sales, laboratory testing of products, and zoning regulations. Any legal grower or dispensary owner that breaks the law can be fined thousands of dollars per week and eventually get shut down. Illegal operators that get shut down often save so much money from the fees and taxes they aren’t paying, that they are able to reopen in a matter of weeks, a process that can take years for anyone working through the legal channels.
“When our family moved to Twentynine Palms nine years ago, it was peaceful and calm,” said local Amy Tessier, 38. “The invasion of pot farms changed all that. … We don’t go for walks under the stars anymore. It just doesn’t feel safe.”
“The smell of pot farms smacks me in the face every day,” said Patricia Domay, 80, longtime resident of Landers. “It’s like a bad dream. New ones are popping up every day, and there’s not a sheriff’s deputy or code enforcement officer in sight.”
Patricia Horwath, a Wonder Valley resident of 23 years, looks off into the distance of the creosote-lined desert horizon. “Straight ahead are just a few of more than 20 illegal cannabis grows that have sprouted within a few miles of my home over the past year or so.”
“Some [people] carry guns,” she added, with a sigh of frustration, “and have lookouts who sit in trucks and vans, closely scanning — and even photographing — people and vehicles passing by.”
She also mentioned a very awkward encounter with a stranger that showed up at her house one day in the spring. Getting straight to the point, he told Horwath that he needed some of her land to grow weed. She declined, along with several other local property owners who shared similar stories.
“The subjects at these locations are intimidating the residents by brandishing firearms and not allowing them access to the areas,” says San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon. “The individuals cultivating illegal cannabis become territorial, shoot at each other, and steal the cannabis being grown.”
Final Thoughts on Illegal Cannabis Grows
To sum it all up, it’s not the illegal growing of cannabis, in and of itself, that gets most people riled up. It’s the environmental destruction and element of crime that often trail not far behind. We have come very far in bringing cannabis to the mainstream, but black market operations that pollute the land, scare locals, and take money away from legal operators paint the entire industry in a negative light – making it that much more difficult to pass progressive legislation that could benefit everyone.
As conscious consumerism enters the cannabis world, purchasing decisions may be based more on fair trade and regenerative farming than on orange hairs and THC percentage. With legalization taking hold, the industry has shifted from trying to protect people from the police to trying to protect small businesses from the behemoths that are inevitably entering the cannabis space. But while a lot of support for small cannabis businesses comes out of a concern for the people involved, there’s another party to be considered: the planet.
Large-scale industrial agriculture has historically been no friend to the environment. But where does the environmental impact of cannabis production really lie? It’s not necessarily size that determines how sustainable a cannabis grow is. A small, indoor operation wastes an incredible amount of electricity, while large-scale outdoor regenerative farming is possible with foresight and planning.
Of course, the cannabis industry right now isn’t set up to reward sustainable practices. California, one of the agricultural centers of the world, has so far allowed cannabis to be cultivated outdoors in only 13 counties, and as of now the products found on the shelves in dispensaries are more likely to come from indoor producers.
When considering the environmental impacts of cannabis cultivation, it’s more relevant to examine the different methods used for cultivation and to remember that, unlike traditional agriculture, cannabis cultivation has another complicated dimension — one created by the remnants of reefer madness.
Elysian Fields, an off-grid homestead in Mendocino County, is run by Jennifer Gray and Simon Evers.
An Energy-Efficient Means of Production
While greenhouse and indoor operations can take steps to reduce their carbon footprint like collecting and re-using water, soil and other natural resources, growing cannabis outside is the most energy efficient method of production.
The International Cannabis Farmers Association, a California-based organization formed to encourage policies supporting local farmers and sungrown cultivation, conducted a study of the various energy consumption levels for different types of production. Their data showed half an acre of indoor production (22,000 square feet) produces the same energy needs per year as 298 average households. Four season greenhouses account for 82 households’ worth of energy, while greenhouses that use the sun’s light for flowering emit the same as 15 houses. Hoop houses that take in mostly sunlight with some supplemental lighting are using the same as 0.5 houses annually, and of course, cannabis grown under the sun uses no additional lighting energy.
So, if the sungrown method is in line with the sustainability goal of decreased energy consumption, why is it allowed only in certain areas and why are the shelves dominated by indoor product? The answer to both questions stems from an artificial idea of “quality” that dominates the market, along with fears around cannabis being “too free.”
Under prohibition, pop culture and the media decided the characteristics that defined “quality” were primarily THC percentage and bud appearance. This would be like deciding the quality of a wine based on the alcohol percentage and color. This, along with the fears in the public overseeing cannabis growing out in the open, led to policies that support indoor cultivation in large, highly secure facilities.
However, growing cannabis on small farms in the sun — in harmony with the environment and without the use of chemicals — creates an objectively high-quality end product. This is because the full spectrum of the sun’s rays maximizes cannabinoid and terpenoid development and because healthy, nutrient-rich soil translates into cleaner cannabis.
Johnny Casali from Huckleberry Hill Farms in Humboldt County says growing with an extra attention to preserving the natural landscape has an impact on the plants that results in cannabis with a true terroir. Terroir, a French term often applied to wine, refers to the unique impact that environmental factors have on a plant phenotype.
“The ability to grow my cannabis in natural sunlight, on a property unique to any other, allows me to create strains that thrive in this area of Humboldt County,” Casali said. “The sun dictates my special creations by rising in the early mornings and setting just behind the madrone trees at 6 p.m.”
61 Alpenglow, a 80-acre farm in Southern Humboldt, grows cannabis outdoors alongside solar panels. The farm is in the “banana belt” of its region, meaning the property is warmer and more dry than the valley below it.
The Regulations for Growing Under the Sun
Sungrown production is currently allowed in California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Growing outdoor herb provides for 1-2 crops per year, compared to the six harvests indoor operations can produce. However, under these states’ laws, cannabis cultivators are taxed based upon the final weight of the cannabis they’re selling, rather than based upon how many production cycles they have. For sungrown cannabis cultivators to compete in this marketplace, they’d need help from more production-based tax incentives.
However, there are a few methods that outdoor growers can incorporate to supplement the natural sunlight and squeeze more harvests in a year. Mixed light operations can range from hoop houses, where farmers pull tarps to create light deprivation, to four season greenhouses that use supplemental lighting to grow cannabis off-season. In addition to supplemental lighting, these facilities may require some seasonal ventilation, heating and cooling. And, like sungrown, this method is only allowed only in some states.
When considering the energy efficiency of different lighting systems, the two types of lights that should be considered are antiquated High-Pressure Sodium (HPS) lights and Light Emitting Diode (LED) lighting. While LEDs are more energy efficient, this method is also more expensive. This means that HPS lights are more common, though LEDs are steadily gaining popularity.
Of course, some cannabis farmers don’t use electric lights at all — for their plants or for themselves — because their farmers believe in a lifestyle free of dependence on artificial energy. One such farmer is Simon Evers of Elysian Fields, a second-generation farm in Mendocino County.
“I choose to live off the grid, in the country,” Evers said. “I believe in homesteading and community a lot. And in that dynamic, [cultivating] sungrown [cannabis] just makes sense.”
Beyond growing under the sun, another way to improve a cannabis farm’s footprint is to adopt regenerative farming practices, which improve the quality of the land even as it is used for cultivation. These regenerative practices include the use of living soils, companion plants, beneficial insects, closed loop compost systems and water recycling.
HappyDay Farms is a small, diversified family farm located in the hills of Northern Mendocino County, California. The farm also grows produce and flowers for a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and local farmers’ markets.
Cyril Guthridge, who runs Waterdog Herb Farm in Mendocino County, believes other natural elements beyond the sun influence the expression of his outdoor harvest.
“It’s about the benefits of the sun, the moon and the air,” Guthridge said.
Guthridge said that his use of companion plants improves the terpene expression of his cannabis, as does the stress of the natural environment.
The trend of cannabis farmers growing other crops on their farm is actually an impact of prohibition, as small craft cannabis farmers needed to create systems that would minimize their trips to town to decrease the likelihood of detection. This, along with a culture of land stewardship, has created a swath of earth-friendly, agri-creative cannabis gardens that are perfect examples of 21st-century farming. As Guthridge says, he’s a cannabis farmer “using nature to make nature better.”
Despite the benefits these farmers see from cultivating with regenerative practices, artisan operators are in danger because of many new cannabis regulations. Because of unique policy and licensing hurdles, cannabis farmers are not eligible for tax incentives based on energy conservation, unlike traditional crop farmers. In addition, there are also more environmental hurdles for sungrown farmers to getting licensed in a legalized environment, including more complicated water access permits and inspection processes.
Sungrown cannabis plants at Elysian Fields.
Shifting Perceptions & Blaming Prohibition
In order for sustainable cannabis practices to be feasible in a regulated market, two shifts in perception must occur.
The first perception that needs to change is that “quality” cannabis is defined by THC percentage and bright orange hairs. Instead, the cannabis consuming public must adapt to a new definition that includes the method by which the plant was farmed, the ethics of the companies that will benefit from that purchase and how that product has impacted the land.
The second perception that must be abolished is the opinion held by many local governments that cannabis grown outdoors is somehow a bigger safety and crime risk than cannabis grown indoors. We must start licensing sungrown cannabis, and encouraging new regulations that provide incentives to grow outdoors, as a part of the larger push for responsible environmental policy.
Ultimately, the only party to blame here is prohibition. Prohibition took a crop and forced it indoors under artificial light — and reefer madness is keeping it there.
Agriculture is a bug-filled industry that must put in work to remain clean. Soil fumigants are a major controversy in this regard. But, with outdoor cannabis cultivation license approvals now on the rise, Health Canada‘s Pesticide Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) approved a fumigant for cannabis farms – chloropicrin (trichloronitromethane.) Two fumigants are approved for Canada’s outdoor […]
One of the major issues with the reaction to the coronavirus pandemic is the effect it has on job security, general income, and the sheer ability to work. Many people are feeling the burn of lost income, and the frustration of not having options. So true is the case with criminal organizations dealing with corona. And just like everyone else, they have adjusted themselves, and their businesses, to adapt to this new corona world.
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What happens to criminal organizations in light of the corona pandemic is not of great importance to most people. At least they don’t think it is. In fact, most people wouldn’t bat an eye at the idea of a cartel leader or mafia boss losing some pocket change, or having obstructions in their way of business. At least they don’t think they would.
Truth is, for anyone into buying products like cannabis, either in a legal location or an illegal location, the functioning of criminal organizations during something like the corona pandemic, is actually rather important. And maybe more important than the ability of us black market buyers getting our supply, is the idea of just how these organizations are making it through the pandemic, and what that means to above board businesses.
Covid-19 isn’t quite as novel as the word ‘novel’ would have you believe. Not unless you want to use that word for every new flu and cold strain out there. In fact, we know plenty about coronaviruses, and the diseases they cause in both mammals and birds. This is because evidence of the most recent ancestor to today’s version of the virus, goes back as much as 8,000 years. Some models say that this antecedent to today’s coronaviruses could be as old as 55 million years.
It’s said that many coronavirus strains originate in bats, like strain NL63 which shared a common ancestor going back to between 1190 – 1449 CE. The illnesses themselves are a group of viruses, related through RNA. In humans and birds the viruses are known to cause respiratory issues, and cases can be anywhere from mild (or no symptoms at all) to death. Many common colds are coronaviruses, although rhinoviruses make up a larger percentage of this class. SARS is an example of a more extreme version of a coronavirus.
In short, Covid-19 is a contagious coronavirus. Many people will show no symptoms. Those currently at risk are the elderly and anyone with a compromised immune system. Like most wintertime viruses that come and go yearly, it causes basic flu symptoms, and follows all other basics of viral transmission rules for its specific class.
Mexican drug cartels and corona
Let’s remember that criminal organizations are synonymous with trafficking, whether it be cannabis, cocaine, fake Gucci products, or people. And this means, they too, need to get across borders. At a time when borders are closed, and air traffic is limited – and watched carefully – this is very difficult. And this accounts for illegal products going in all directions. Take Mexico City’s Tepito market at the start of the pandemic, for example. This market is a hotspot for counterfeit and illegal products. At the start of lockdowns last year, the pressure could be felt in such a marketplace, where the already rock-bottom prices were cut by as much as 50% more.
The Tepito market is run by criminal organization Union Tepito, which started to feel the burn when the flow of Chinese products slowed to a dribble as supply chains everywhere essentially stopped. Business being down doesn’t stop an organization running the show from expecting what they always expect, and in this case, vendors in the market are required to pay protection money to the organization in order to use the space to sell. This didn’t change because of business slowing, which led to abductions and killings since many vendors weren’t able to make payments.
The synthetic drug market was also badly hit in the beginning, much of which depends on chemicals from China and India, and the ability to ship containers and use ports. Fentanyl is one of the big trafficking drugs for which raw materials generally come from China. This stoppage in the supply chain meant a temporary increase in prices for synthetic drugs like fentanyl and methamphetamine. At one point, prices went from 2,500 pesos for just under a half kilogram of methamphetamine, to 15,000 pesos.
Getting products across borders at all was difficult in the beginning. A Mexicali drug smuggler made this statement to publication Riodoce right after lockdown started: “Five days ago was the last time we brought something across the border. Just three kilos… We have arrangements with border police and our smugglers know which borders posts to use. But now, many crossing have surprisingly been shut. That makes our business much more risky.”
In terms of using the air, though criminal organizations aren’t known for stocking commercial flights anymore, they are known for using the sky to get products from one country to another, and at a time when flights are greatly reduced, any criminal organization actions are that much more noticeable.
How are criminal organizations dealing with corona?
As should be expected, they’re evolving, or even going back to old standards. The initial kink in supply chains, and border and flying restrictions, made for a decrease in general action. But this changed, and led to secondary markets for raw materials, production, and the selling of new counterfeit and fake products like masks and antibacterial gel, which hadn’t garnered an income for these organizations before.
According to the DEA, in New York it was found that many small packages were being sent through the mail containing high-potency drugs like fentanyl. In fact, Mexican cartels took on more of the processing work as a result of supply issues, pressing fentanyl into pills for better transport. Older methods are still being employed as well, and perhaps increased. Like hiding drugs in regular products like baby wipes when using parcel delivery services, in hidden compartments of vehicles, and included in shipments of produce. Some cartels have even employed the use of backpackers to get drugs across borders.
In an effort to move products during lockdown mode, its expected by many officials that criminal organizations have turned to other avenues like submersible crafts, drones, tunnels, and ultralights, while the use of cryptocurrencies has also skyrocketed as a result of the corona situation.
The DEA added that, after the initial upset in supply, Mexican cartels have quickly found new providers of raw materials, possibly increased their production, and are actually sending more fentanyl and methamphetamine into the US than prior to the pandemic. It also appears that operations like cultivating poppies and producing heroine, have not been obstructed. This would include cannabis cultivation and production as well.
In Mexico, while business is still good, there have been some changes within the cartel landscape. Smaller cartels have taken on new business enterprises, some larger cartels have fractured a bit, and overall the competition has increased. While some crimes have decreased during Mexico’s lockdowns, homicides have remained high for this reason.
Criminal organizations are even using the corona situation to step in for the government. In Southern Italy, Brazil, and Mexico these organizations are supplying badly needed products, sometimes enforcing lockdown measures, and emphasizing that the government can’t handle the situation, while gaining new support in local communities.
Some criminal organizations are benefitting from the sheer lack of observers around because of corona lockdowns. This goes for the trafficking of endangered species, in which poachers have been able to do as they wish in places like Sub-Saharan Africa, with very little currently to stop them.
The Italian mafia
The Italian mafia has been particularly good at taking advantage of the situation by targeting failing businesses in Italy and the rest of Europe for money-lending. The goal isn’t to lend money, but to take over these businesses for their own uses like money laundering, and getting in on a new industry. Many believe that when things improve, the Italian mafia might be dominating many different industries in Europe, including industries and companies not infiltrated before.
Of course, business owners are not expected to pay back the money lent, but to eventually operate as front men for the illegal operations, which, because of their situations, and the threat of violence for not paying, they have no choice about. Failing businesses are not just an issue with Italy, and the Italian mafia has been worming its way all throughout Europe.
Italy, it should be remembered, has been one of the hardest hit countries, with more than 390,000 businesses being closed, approximately 200,000 independent workers going bankrupt, and such a dramatic increase in poverty that the government has had to give out €400 million in shopping vouchers, and charity organizations have given out 30% more in food aid.
By March of 2020, mafia organizations were already giving out much-needed food baskets to the hardest hit places and families. As banks began lending far less money, the mafia stepped in to take care of temporary monetary needs with dirty money, which they use the businesses to clean. In an effort to combat this, the Italian government issued 1,600 mafia bans in 2020 to attempt to keep operatives from making bids for public contracts, this is a 25% increase from the year before.
Expansion into new markets
Another aspect of making it harder for criminals to operate in their own field, is the expansion into other fields. One example is using the increase in online business, as most people are working from home. This has meant an increase in credit card fraud, phishing scams, cyberattacks, and fake donation requests via pirated sites. A lot of the time, the coronavirus is specifically used in the selling of high-demand products, like face masks and disinfectants, which have actually become highly trafficked products in the corona age.
It fact, whether it was warranted or not, Interpol has warned about mafia groups possibly trying to infiltrate and disrupt supply chains to get ahold of corona vaccines for their own distribution. This may, or may not, also apply to covid-19 tests. The group established that “of 3,000 websites associated with online pharmacies suspected of selling illicit medicines and medical devices, around 1,700 contained cyber threats, especially phishing and spamming malware.”
According to the Guardian, just a couple weeks into the lockdown last year, as many as 70,000 scam sites popped up selling products like hand gel and masks, as well as other remedies that were either nonexistent to begin with, stolen, or fake. The shift from the majority working in offices to the majority working from home so suddenly, has left IT security teams in a bind, and has opened up more vulnerabilities, which has increased issues with malware, and even ransomeware, a type of malware that can lock a computer’s files until a ransom is paid.
In the end, except for initial supply chain issues that led to a decrease in available products, and an increase in product prices, most criminal organizations seem to have rebounded just fine. Not only have they found ways around the trafficking obstacle courses set in front of them, but they’ve figured out ways to expand into new venues. So, for anyone worried that they won’t be able to get their standard marijuana fix, or the next line of cocaine, no worries, some people are still hard at work for you.
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With 2017 legislation, Argentina joined the growing number of South American countries to relax cannabis laws. At the end of 2020, that legislation was expanded, and now finally, Argentina allows cannabis self-cultivation for medical use.
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Cannabis in Argentina
Cannabis is not legal for recreational use in Argentina, but small amounts of it were decriminalized back in 2009. In the Arriola decision, which was the result of a court case arising from the arrest of five men, the court determined that small amounts of drugs meant for personal use, that won’t affect or cause harm to anyone else, and which pose no threat of danger, are decriminalized. There is no official amount set for personal use, meaning law enforcement and judges must use their own discretion per case.
Much like Mexico and South Africa, which each have constitutional rulings related to cannabis and the right of an individual to live life as they see fit without intrusion from the government, Argentina’s court ruled that “Each adult is free to make lifestyle decisions without the intervention of the state.” The decision was also meant to encourage law enforcement money to be spent on bigger cases, while leaving small-time users to enter treatment programs instead.
Cannabis trafficking is illegal in Argentina and can incur a penalty of 4-15 years in prison. It’s illegal for residents to grow marijuana for commercial purposes.
Medical bill 2017
On the 29th of March, 2017, Argentina’s senate approved legislation for the legalization of medical cannabis. The bill requires those in need of cannabis medications to register with the country’s national program, which is overseen by the Ministry of Health. Not only that, the government actually set it up to provide free access of these medications to patients and children approved for their use.
The reason it’s free is because the medical ‘program’ was set up under the bill as a research initiative called the National Program for the Study and Research of the Medicinal Use of the Cannabis Plant and its By-products and Non-conventional Treatments. By law, patients have to be enrolled in the program, and the program allows for medical cannabis oil to be provided to patients free of charge. This law did not technically institute a structured market, leaving the only way to access these medications through the government run program.
Besides starting government run cultivation, the law did something else. It instituted the Cannabis Exceptional Access Regime which allows the import of medications with cannabis by-products into the country for verified patients with epilepsy. This provision, as it was written in 2017, does not cover other disorders that can be treated with cannabis medicines. Only licensed physicians, specifically neurology specialists, are able to make such requests on behalf of their patients under this provision.
Argentina now allows cannabis self-cultivation
When the bill was passed in 2017, cultivation carried a sentence of up to two years. While it was pushed for this bill to include a provision for self-cultivation, Argentinian legislators did not include it in the bill, restricting the ability for sick people to grow their own marijuana. By many, including activist group Mama Cultiva – which helped lead the way for this legalization, this was a major failing in an otherwise big step in the right direction.
In early November 2020, a decree was published in the Official Gazette making the statement that Argentina now allows cannabis self-cultivation for medical purposes. The government legalized personal cultivation, along with legalizing the sale of cannabis products (creams and oils) in pharmacies. The decree was signed by President Alberto Fernández, and states that there should be “timely, safe, inclusive and protective access for those who need to use cannabis as a therapeutic tool.” He added that a regulatory framework must be set up quickly to do so. Though the decree made the statement that Argentina now allows cannabis self-cultivation, it did not detail how many plants an individual could grow, stating that this information would be announced later.
Patients, or groups, who want to access products in pharmacies, or cultivate cannabis plants, must still be registered with the ‘National Cannabis Programme’, through Reprocann – the Registry for the Cannabis Program, which was originally instituted by the 2017 legislation, but which was never actually operational due to a lack of regulation to govern it. When patients register, they can choose to cultivate their own marijuana, buy from a solidary grower, or obtain products through a pharmacy.
It’s good to remind here that simply passing a bill, or signing a decree, does not institute a regulated market. This decree updated the bill passed in 2017, but didn’t do more to offer a regulatory framework, which means in order for these things to happen, more laws have to be passed to provide details for actual usage. Even so, it’s nice to have the law on the books.
This new decree also expands the ability to import cannabis medicines. Whereas the Cannabis Exceptional Access Regime only applied to epilepsy patients when the 2017 bill was passed, this has now been expanded to include other ailments like fibromyalgia, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and other diseases and disorders that have shown to be helped by cannabis medicines. The government will continue to promote production of cannabis for medical treatments, and, in the same spirit as giving it out to patients for free, will guarantee availability of medications, even to patients who do not have standard health coverage.
According to Prohibition Partners (via Forbes), apart from helping sick people get the medicine they need, and expanding laws so that Argentina now allows cannabis self-cultivation, the cannabis market in Argentina could be worth as much as $40 million in sales by 2024. An increase in revenue has been a strong reason for legalization in other locations, and very likely was an even more powerful motivator than a group of mothers with sick children.
Mama Cultiva and the activists
Argentina is home to a group of influential activists known as Mama Cultiva. As the name implies, this group was started as a group of mothers trying to get medicine for their sick children. Mama Cultiva is an NGO that was originally founded in Chile in 2016, and has been working towards cannabis legalization since that time, both in fighting for new legislation, and providing educational information about cannabis.
Mama Cultiva was a strong force behind the 2017 legalization, and at the time was quite dismayed that cultivation was not given the green light. In light of this new legislation, Mama Cultiva’s Argentina chapter head Valeria Salech said “We’ve been fighting for this for three years… We’re no longer going to be criminalized for seeking a better quality of life for ourselves and our loved ones.”
She explained in a separate statement, “It’s not a law on usage. It doesn’t regulate cannabis. It’s a research law, and the fact that we can insert a mini-regulation in that research law for those of us who grow (the plant) for our health is a big deal.” Mama Cultiva is not just fighting for medical usage, but full recreational legalization, as the organization views it as important for mental health in general.
To give an example of the level of dedication of Mama Cultiva, and why they are so committed, consider that the woman who made these statements, Valeria Salech, has a now 14-year-old son with both epilepsy and autism, who has been using cannabis treatments for six years.
This desire for greater legalization is echoed by the Argentine Cannabis Confederation, a group of pro-legalization product producers that are involved with the production of things like cannabis infused beer, and marijuana growing supplies. This group, which was upset by not being involved in the debates to determine draft legislation, thinks that the current law still doesn’t reach far enough.
Group president Leandro Ayala reminded “We don’t know what’s going to happen with low-level possession, which is what’s hurting us at the moment, the fact that we can be arrested for carrying two marijuana cigarettes.” He did say that he believes the cannabis industry could benefit from self-cultivation, especially in the form of supplying to these home-growers, but was still concerned overall about the issue of minor possession still being illegal.
He went on to point out that cannabis use shouldn’t have to be associated with sickness, and stated about the recent update in laws: “I don’t celebrate that because you’re only going to be able to grow if you’re sick, and in my case I don’t feel like a sick person. I use (cannabis) recreationally. Why do I have to use the shield of saying I have a pathology in order to grow when that’s not true?”
In a way, Argentina just tripped over its own toes, but not in the worst manner. Before even fully setting its 2017 legislative measures into workable motion, Argentina went ahead and updated them. That Argentina now allows cannabis self-cultivation is great. Going at this rate of updating that which hasn’t even been fully instituted, I can only imagine that a recreational legalization really isn’t too far off in the distance.
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