Photo: Sofía Jaimes Borges

Cannabis in Caracas: Another Market Altered by the Pandemic

Illegal economies are also buckling in the face of fuel shortages, checkpoints and the closing of our borders. The price of cannabis has gone through the roof during the quarantine

The economic crisis caused by coronavirus is hitting everyone: traditional markets and businesses… and illegal ventures. In Venezuela, the confinement and severe gasoline shortage are deadly for many merchants, including those selling marijuana. While still illegal, it’s also going through a distortion quite similar to legitimate economic activities. And it goes beyond the natural risks that involve drug dealing.

Ever since the quarantine decree was announced on March 16th, active marijuana users have been facing a deep shortage and a price spike that escapes the budget of many frequent smokers. “Before the quarantine, you could buy a gram for a dollar. Now, they take five bucks for a gram and the price will probably go up,” says Jesús, a caraqueño unable to continue his regular, personal use because he’s had to adjust to what he can afford.

Ever since the quarantine decree was announced on March 16th, active marijuana users have been facing a deep shortage and a price spike that escapes the budget of many frequent smokers.

Over a month of quarantine has gone by, and the street price of cannabis in Venezuela has increased between 700% and 1000%. It’s a unique combination, there’s high demand (perhaps more in lieu of the lockdown, with anxiety and the need to calm the nerves down), and two factors going against the circulation of the product: closed borders with Colombia, and the fuel issues that complicate moving it around streets and highways, filled with checkpoints, in places where you can only get around if you have safe-passage.

In Caracas, there are police and military checkpoints at the entrances and exits of some municipalities, and even in the middle of highways. Sellers are at a higher risk. What little fuel comes in is controlled by the government through the Army, so a new black market has blossomed: each liter (that used to be pretty much free) is sold for over two dollars.

Genetically Modified for Venezuelans

The cannabis strain consumed in Venezuela comes from Colombia, where it’s harvested and packaged for its distribution and sale. According to the Junta Internacional de Fiscalización de Estupefacientes (JIFE), it’s estimated that in 2018, Colombia produced close to 44.5 tonnes and it estimated its down to 1.92 tonnes in 2019.

In August 2019, Colombian police seized in the Tolima region a 2.1 tonnes shipment of genetically modified marijuana heading to Venezuela. This genetically modified strainscarce at the momentis the one commonly used in Venezuela, and according to reports, its main production site is Cali, Colombia, specifically in the Norte del Valle region, birthplace of the disappeared Cali Cartel. To bring it to Venezuela, dealers use illegal paths at the border and from there they move it to different places across the country.

In August 2019, the Oficina Nacional Antidrogas (ONA) in Venezuela, announced that marijuana confiscations represented 80% of the total amount of drug seizures in the country in the first semester of that year. InSight Crime compared these numbers to a 2017 report and concluded that, during that year, cannabis was 14% of the total drugs impounded, while 84% was cocaine. The numbers couldn’t be compared to 2018 because data for that year wasn’t available—since ONA didn’t publish reports for that period.

However, according to the official calculations brought by Tarek William Saab, the prosecutor general appointed by the National Constituent Assembly, approximately 76 tonnes of drugs were seized in 2019 all over the country, and cannabis accounts for 24.9 of those.

The marijuana that isn’t confiscated is either used in Venezuela or it’s exported from here. Another report by InSight Crime in 2018 put forth the idea that Anzoátegui was becoming a new point of exports for drugs that are produced in Colombia, since only in November of that year, there were three raids where 989 bricks of cocaine and 1,075 bricks of marijuana were seized. Different reports by organizations and the government point at the Río Caribe region in Sucre state, eastern Venezuela, as the main drug pathway controlled by the San Juan de las Galdonas gang. InSight Crime reveals that it starts on the Venezuelan shore, then it goes to Trinidad and then to the rest of the Caribbean islands, before it reaches its final destination in the United States or Europe.

Less Pot, More Stress

Jesús works as a call center operator in Caracas and has been a regular cannabis smoker for two years. Like many all over the world, the economic crisis caused by coronavirus left him unemployed while things go back to normal.

Under regular conditions, Jesús would buy, on average, between 10 and 20 grams a month. “These difficult times have made me lower my consumption by a lot and learn how to ration my daily intake, because when I run out of it, I don’t know when I’ll be able to buy again. The high price is something one can ride out if you regulate your dosage. However, to get my hands on it, I’ve had to ask acquaintances that have a car with fuel, so they bring it to me as a favor.”

Pablo is a journalism student in Caracas and he’s been smoking marijuana regularly for about eight years. Before the quarantine, he could get a gram for around 0.6 dollars. A price below average that he had access to if he bought larger quantities, with a group of other smokers. “Now each gram costs 3.5 dollars if we reach the amount needed. If I have to buy it at the retail price, then it goes up to 5 or 7 dollars a unit, depending on who sells it to you.”

Like everyone else here, Pablo is also affected by the gas problem. Despite owning a car, he avoids going out, both because of the quarantine and to avoid using fuel, which has also led him to ask his acquaintances to come to a closer place so that he can pick up the pot on foot. Since the gas shortage began during quarantine, caraqueños look after and ration the use of their cars more than anything else.

The anxiety of living in a situation of uncertainty like this, in a country that was already going through a crisis, makes him smoke more. “If I used to smoke two joints a day, now I can only smoke one, and smaller. But I’m not thinking about quitting. We’re in a situation where we’re forced to stay inside and the only moment I have to relax is when I smoke.”

Enrique retired from his regular job two years ago and he lives off his pension ever since. He does odd jobs from time to time for extra money because his income sometimes isn’t enough, and with the emergency decree it’s become impossible. He has smoked cannabis since he was 31 years old. Before the quarantine, he used to buy each gram for one or two dollars. Now it’s a different story. His providers are asking for up to 7 dollars a gram.

Since the quarantine began, Enrique has been unable to resupply. “The last time I smoked was over two months ago. I’ve since run out.” He points out that if he had the money, he would go and buy some because of the amount of stress caused by the confinement. Like many others, he used marijuana mostly because of the relaxing effects.

Andrés studies Accounting and used to work in customer service before confinement began. Before the quarantine, he used to pay one dollar per gram and he would consume around ten grams each week. The high prices prevent him from smoking at the moment. “There are no drugs moving around,” he says, “but anti-narcotics police are always looking for people, whether they have it on them or not, to try to extort them.”

According to Article 75 of the Ley Orgánica sobre Sustancias Estupefacientes y Psicotrópicas de Venezuela (the national anti-drug law), a person is allowed to carry “up to 20 grams of Cannabis Sativa” for personal use. But that isn’t very relevant: if the police catch you with a joint, a blunt, or even small residues you may have in your pockets, purse, or car floor, you’re at the officer’s mercy.

Andrés says that he’s been in trouble with the authorities himself for carrying amounts that are within the scope of the law. “If you fall, you have no other choice but to pay up. To go against them quoting the law can get you in deeper trouble. It’s best if you don’t mention it and try to reach an agreement.”

The Market Is Shrinking for Dealers

Gabriel has been selling cannabis for five years. He’s witnessed the prices soar as the Venezuelan crisis continues, yet he hasn’t been able to sell since the quarantine began: “Each time I go and buy to sell later, the price goes up, or it’s sold out everywhere because they run out of it very fast, and with the transportation restrictions I can’t move around to look for more. There’s a lot of police and military presence on the streets, so the risk of getting caught is even higher. Whoever has some, sells it whatever price he wants.”

Before the quarantine, Gabriel sold the gram at around 1.5 dollars. The last time he talked to his provider, the rate was 6 dollars. “With that price, I have to sell at 7 or 8 dollars a gram, otherwise I can’t.”

Verónica, another dealer, used to sell the gram for 2 dollars. Now, over a month later, she sells for 6 dollars, although as a smoker she points out that she’s had to pay up to 8 dollars when she runs out of stock. The logistics she uses to get her supplies varies. Sometimes she has to go and pick it up herself and sometimes they bring it to her. She points out that when they bring it to her, they don’t charge extra.

But when she goes to pick it up, it’s a different story: “I go in a mototaxi, and before the quarantine, I paid 10 dollars for the ride, which was considered expensive for a motorcycle ride, but that was also the price for the merchandise I was picking up. Now the fare is 20 dollars.” She has had to lower her own intake because she doesn’t have the same availability as before. She’s had to save.

Verónica comments that since her sales have dropped so much, she’s considering selling other types of drugs that are more expensive, because “numbers aren’t enough” with just marijuana.

These distortions with the price of marijuana are a normal reaction within markets. What happened was that new variables are now in play and they directly affected the supply and demand. Users in other countries have also pointed out certain distortions in the illegal marijuana trade, thanks to the confinement laws.

Before the quarantine, Gabriel sold the gram at around 1.5 dollars. The last time he talked to his provider, the rate was 6 dollars. “With that price, I have to sell at 7 or 8 dollars a gram, otherwise I can’t.”

Luis, a Venezuelan living in Valencia, Spain, explains that prices haven’t changed that much. A gram used to go for 5 euros and the price remained the same for the first month of quarantine. The price is 6 euros now. “I went out to buy yesterday and I have to take other paths to reach my dealer’s house, to avoid getting stopped by the cops.” In Spain, those that don’t follow the confinement rules can be fined for up to 1,000 euros and if a person breaks quarantine and is carrying pot or some other illegal substance, the whole issue will be even worse.

The same happens to Daniel in Buenos Aires. He’s been smoking marijuana every day for about 7 years. He says that in the country where he lives, the prices have soared too. Before the quarantine he paid 1.6 dollars per gram. He used to buy 15 grams for 1,500 pesos (approximately 15 dollars) but now he pays 2,000 pesos for 4 grams (20 dollars). Daniel explains that, in Buenos Aires, the problem is the restricted mobility: “If the police gets you, the consequences are much more serious because not only are you doing something illegal, you’re breaking the quarantine.”

Cannabis possession is still illegal both in Spain and Argentina, so if you’re caught, you may be fined or even jailed. It all depends on how much you’re carrying. Small quantities are considered personal use and they normally carry a fine which depends on the drug’s price.

Legal Cannabis in Venezuela?

In 2018, the Pensando la Marihuana movement introduced a document in the National Constituent Assembly, the Mayor’s Office in Caracas and other government institutions and NGOs, asking for the legalization and depenalization of marijuana to be discussed. No steps have been taken forward on this discussion and it’s unknown what kind of reception the paper had within government institutions.

Esluve Sosa, one of the authors of the report, says that Venezuela is one of the countries where legalizing cannabis is considered a less important issue. The topic has been barely discussed in the last few years.

Unlike other countries and cities, it’s not common to smell marijuana as you walk on the streets of Venezuela. It continues to be a taboo topic in many ways, and those using it, do so as discreetly as possible. Smokers look for privacy, whether it’s at home, where the police won’t get you (neighbors aren’t usually a problem) or in a place where there isn’t too much foot traffic.

Many of the people we interviewed said that when neighbors are uncomfortable with the smell, they usually just knock on your door and ask you to close the window or something so that the smoke doesn’t bother them, but they never call the police. “We might be smokers, but the truth is that most neighbors trust someone like us more than they trust the police. Besides, we know that the police normally don’t do anything, they don’t respond to the call, so people go like ‘why waste my time?’”

Andrés. D Martínez

Economics journalist with a special interest in illegal markets, culture and stories that need to be heard.