If Washington, Colorado or Oregon legalize marijuana in next week's statewide elections, the result won't just be felt in those states: according to a study published this week, American voters appear set to back a massive "structural shock" to the Mexican drug cartels that could sap literally billions from their coffers in very short order.

Although the report by the Mexican Institute on Competitiveness doesn't try to model the effects of all three states legalizing at once -- which polls show they appear likely to do -- it does calculate the estimated aggregated effects on marijuana smuggled in from Mexico, finding that American weed would become cheaper and more available than ever before.

As a direct result of legalization, the cartels would face massive losses starting almost immediately. Washington state alone could cost them $1.3 billion by sapping 22.7 percent of the total amount of marijuana they import, the study says. Colorado would deal even more damage to the cartels, estimated to spark a reduction of 23.5 percent in imports -- a cost of up to $1.4 billion. Oregon, at $1.8 billion, would hurt them the worst of all, driving imports down a whopping 30.4 percent.

America's marijuana imports from Mexico are worth an estimated $6 billion annually.

Being forced to compete with semi-legal marijuana grown in the states would bring about the largest change in the illegal drug markets since the emergence of cocaine in the U.S. during the 1980s, the study added. Such a huge shift, the study says, would give criminal gangs in Mexico cause to move in on the legal marijuana trade in an effort to recoup some of their losses -- a potential downside for drug reform advocates, many of whom advertise legalization as a cure-all for the black market.

However, the think tank also noted Mexican officials worry that could complicate some enforcement actions, especially if producers are sending their product to a place that's legalized the drug for adult recreational use. Mexico decriminalized possession of small amounts of illegal drugs in 2009, refocusing the bloody war with the cartels after law enforcement resources became so strained that focusing almost exclusively on producers instead of users became the only option.

Officially, more than 50,000 people have been killed in Mexico's drug war since late 2006, when outgoing Mexican President Felipe Calderón announced his military-style campaign against the cartels -- a strategy which turned America's southern neighbor one of the hottest, most dangerous war zones in the world. Unfortunately, independent reports put the death toll at roughly double what government officials care to admit.


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(H/T: The Associated Press)