How Legalizing Marijuana Is Securing the Border: The Border Wall, Drug Smuggling, and Lessons for Immigration Policy

Publication date: 
December 2018
How Legalizing Marijuana Is Securing the Border: The Border Wall, Drug Smuggling, and Lessons for Immigration Policy

President Trump has repeatedly cited drug smuggling to justify a border wall. Because it is difficult to conceal, marijuana is the main drug transported between ports of entry where a border wall would matter. However, Border Patrol seizure figures demonstrate that marijuana flows have fallen continuously since 2014, when states began to legalize marijuana. After decades of no progress in reducing marijuana smuggling, the average Border Patrol agent between ports of entry confiscated 78 percent less marijuana in fiscal year (FY) 2018 than in FY 2013.

As a result, the value of all drugs seized by the average agent has fallen by 70 percent since FY 2013. Without marijuana coming in between ports of entry, drug smuggling activity now primarily occurs at ports of entry, where a border wall would have no effect. In FY 2018, the average inspector at ports of entry made drug seizures that were three times more valuable overall than those made by Border Patrol agents between ports of entry — a radical change from 2013 when Border Patrol agents averaged more valuable seizures. This is because smugglers bring mainly hard drugs through ports. By weight, the average port inspector seized 8 times more cocaine, 17 times more fentanyl, 23 times more methamphetamine, and 36 times more heroin than the average Border Patrol agent seized at the physical border in early 2018.

Given these trends, a border wall or more Border Patrol agents to stop drugs between ports of entry makes little sense. State marijuana legalization starting in 2014 did more to reduce marijuana smuggling than the doubling of Border Patrol agents or the construction of hundreds of miles of border fencing did from 2003 to 2009. As more states — particularly on the East Coast — legalize marijuana in 2019, these trends will only accelerate. The administration should avoid endangering this success and not prosecute state-legal sellers of marijuana. This success also provides a model for addressing illegal immigration. Just as legalization has reduced the incentives to smuggle marijuana illegally, greater legal migration opportunities undercut the incentive to enter illegally. Congress should recognize marijuana legalization’s success and replicate it for immigration.