Marijuana dominates drug seizures along US-Mexico border

There's only one word for the number of pounds of marijuana seized by the U.S. Border Patrol and at U.S. ports of entry: high.

It's no secret that pot is the most widely used illegal drug in the United States, with 48 percent of Americans in a recent Pew Research Center survey saying they've tried the drug. So it didn’t come as much of a surprise when The Center for Investigative Reporting found that cannabis was the most-seized drug along the U.S.-Mexico border ­– more than meth, heroin and cocaine combined.

The total collected from 2005 to 2011? More than 17 million pounds.

In case you were wondering, that works out to more than 16.3 billion joints seized between 2005 and 2011. That’s about seven joints per American per year for that period. And while that’s a lot of pot, that's just what was seized, not what actually made it over the border.

And if you’re wondering what 17 million pounds of pot looks like, watch our memevid by Michael Corey, our news applications developer. (And yes, we just made up that word. You’ll see why when you watch the video).

The more our reporters drilled down on drug seizure data, the more interesting the story became.

Take Southern California's Campo Station as an example. With 1,506 seizures between 2005 and 2011 totaling more than 111,000 pounds of weed, it's the facility with the highest number of busts in California, outside the San Diego ports of entry.

But the median seizure size is small – 0.4 ounces, or enough for about 24 joints. That suggests the checkpoint may be more effective at stopping consumers of marijuana, rather than big-time smugglers. (You can also learn more about small-time busts at Texas’ Sierra Blanca checkpoint in our story here.) California is among 19 states with medical marijuana laws, and possession of up to 1 ounce of cannabis is an infraction punishable with a $100 fine.

By contrast, take a look at the Ajo Station in Arizona. More than 1 million pounds were seized from 2005 to 2011 in 3,510 busts, with a median seizure size of 277 pounds. This higher median could mean agents are stopping smugglers, rather than people carrying a few grams for recreational use. Arizona also has medical marijuana laws, but possession of less than 2 pounds is a felony and could result in jail time and a $750 fine.

Marijuana has been a longtime staple of the drug cartels in Mexico; they have complete control over the product, from cultivation to transportation and distribution. Drugs like heroin and cocaine also move through Mexico, but cartels don't necessarily have control over production. Cannabis is a consistent cash crop for these powerful gangs, providing fuel for the drug war that has caused an estimated 60,000 deaths in Mexico since late 2006.

For more information, check out our map of border drug seizures and user guide for more information.

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