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Last updated on April 16, 2014 at 17:34 EDT

Mexican Marijuana is Still Plentiful — and Cheap

December 24, 2007

A car, a home, a gallon of milk — most everything costs more now than a generation ago. Except a baggie of Mexican marijuana.

Give or take a few dollars, authorities say, pot grown in Mexico and sold in Houston and other Texas cities still goes for about the same price as 25 years ago: $60 to $80 for an ounce.

In economic terms, marijuana is far cheaper since the decade when a three-bedroom home in upscale West University cost $150,000, a new ride was less than $6,000 and first lady Nancy Reagan urged kids to “Just Say No.”

“I guarantee you it is probably cheaper than it was back in the day,” said Lt. Gray Smith of the Houston police narcotics division. “Since I’ve been in the dope business, it has been pretty much the same,” he said of prices during 20 years of monitoring sales.

Others agree.

“I don’t care if you put 10 Marine divisions along the Mexican border, you are never going to be able to stop the movement of drugs, marijuana, across the border,” said Mike Vigil, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s former chief of international operations.

The problem is not only that the 2,000-mile-long border is huge, but also that the U.S. depends on people and commerce being able to freely flow in and out of the country.

“If you were to search everything, you’d have lines going back 100 miles,” Vigil said.

Although rarely bestowed with the infamy or educational focus of other illegal substances, the dried, greenish-brown plant remains the most-used illicit drug in the United States, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Seizures have climbed An estimated 97 million Americans age 12 or older have smoked marijuana, according to the 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Among schoolkids, it is considered the leading drug problem after alcohol.

“The efforts to stop the flow of marijuana — despite cost and manpower involved — have failed,” said Bruce Bagley, who studies illegal drugs for the University of Miami. “There is a surplus and an abundance of marijuana flowing into the United States.”

Despite the emergence of fancy designer marijuana, most of the pot in the U.S. comes from Mexico.

Discussion about the marijuana market and attitudes about the drug comes as the White House recently announced disputable findings that there is a shortage of cocaine in many U.S. cities.

Drug czar John Walters portrayed a spike in cocaine prices during the first six months of 2007 as progress because a key drug-war goal is to squeeze supply and drive up prices to discourage use. DEA spokesman Steve Robertson said low marijuana prices, however, don’t signal defeat.

“Every time we seize an amount of marijuana, no matter how small or large, that is a blow against these criminal organizations, and that deprives the organization of money. It is also one less opportunity for somebody to mess up their lives,” he said.

According to a drug market analysis released earlier this year, federal, state and local police assigned within the Houston-based High Intensity Drug Trafficking area saw marijuana seizures climb from 85,582 pounds in 2005 to last year’s haul of 191,000 pounds.

Based on the weight of a typical marijuana cigarette, enough marijuana to roll more than 171 million joints was taken out of commission in a 16-county area, including Houston and portions of the Texas Gulf Coast.

‘A lot of customers’ “It is phenomenal,” Robertson said of the amount of marijuana. “There is a lot of grass coming across the Southwest border, and we’re seizing a lot, but the reason there is a lot is because there are a lot of customers.”

Jorge Cervantes, who has a Web site on marijuana growing and is a columnist for High Times magazine, said governments worldwide know they can’t snuff out drugs.

“They know there is no way they can win,” said Cervantes, who spent part of last year visiting Mexican marijuana farms.

Marijuana can be bought for as little as $30 a pound in remote stretches of Mexico and can be sold for $500 in Houston, or for at least twice that amount when packaged in smaller user quantities, said David Gonzalez, a 26-year-old West Texan who ran a drug-trafficking organization started by his father and served prison time in Texas.

“Start breaking it up for high school kids or small-time consumers — a joint here, a joint there — you can make almost a thousand bucks off it,” he said. “But the risk is greater. You have to peddle it on the street.”

Mexican marijuana prices stay low because the major drug-trafficking cartels don’t charge smaller players a fee to do business or smuggle through their turf, Gonzalez said. “You never hear of people getting killed over a few pounds of marijuana, but you do over a few ounces of cocaine. Marijuana is pretty much an open market. Nobody controls it, nobody wants to control it.”

Some speculate that Mexican marijuana remains popular because many drug-using Americans are not willing to pay for more powerful and pricey plants grown in the United States. “Mexican marijuana is inferior. They have not innovated as much as the California hippies,” said Bagley.

Price not indicative Still, Mexican marijuana holds a steady place in the market because it is far cheaper than the U.S.-grown marijuana and is not as debilitating, especially for new users.

It might be like comparing bargain beer to Chivas Regal, an upscale Scotch whiskey.

Rosalie Pacula, a senior economist and co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center, said that not much information is gathered on the price and potency of marijuana grown outside the United States because it’s hard to draw conclusions from the prices.

“The dollar price on a bag of marijuana is not indicative of the value of the bag, as you must also know the quantity and potency of the marijuana inside to know its real price,” she said. While figures could indicate law enforcement isn’t impacting prices, she said, the market also changes.

Jon Gettman, an analyst and former national head of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said marijuana prices could stay low because Texas is so close to an unlimited supply of the drug.

“Presumably Gulf Coast shrimp is cheaper in Houston than it is in Minnesota, and this is true for many commodities throughout the country and the world,” he said.

dane.schiller@chron.com