Kristen Hwang, The Desert Sun
Marijuana smugglers are growing and shipping vast quantities of illicit cannabis across the USA.
They’re mailing it, driving it and, in at least one case, flying it around in skydiving planes. They’re hiding it in truck beds and trunks and vacuum-sealing it to hide the smell as they pass police officers patrolling the interstates.
Many are starting in states where growing marijuana is legal, such as Colorado, and sending the drug elsewhere.
In June, Colorado prosecutors said they busted a 74-person operation producing 100 pounds of marijuana per month — enough to generate $200,000 monthly, tax free, for more than four years.
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Police seized two tons of cannabis from dozens of homes and warehouses in the Denver metro area. Tangled up in the scheme were fathers and sons and several former professional football players.
“Those of us in law enforcement kept saying, ‘(Legalization) will not stop crime. You’re just making it easier for people who want to make money. What we’ve done is give them cover,’ ” Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman said.
For decades, the black market was the only source of recreational marijuana in America. But in 2012, Colorado voters approved a ballot initiative to legalize the drug.
Seven states followed in 2014 and 2016. Now, nearly 65 million Americans live in states where adults can legally consume marijuana for any reason.
Legalization advocates have long argued that regulating marijuana forces the industry out of the shadows and into the public eye, where the drug can be taxed and the black market effectively eliminated.
But because marijuana remains illegal in so many states, smugglers can take advantage of the patchwork of laws. A pound of marijuana might sell for about $2,000 in Colorado but could fetch three times as much in a large East Coast city.
Less marijuana is crossing the U.S. border, according to the U.S. Border Patrol. The agency’s marijuana seizures dropped by almost half between 2011 and 2016, falling from 2.5 million pounds to 1.3 million pounds.
Agents were hesitant to speculate about what caused the drop, but during that time U.S. consumers increasingly began buying domestic pot.
“We’ve seen it peak in 2011. … Obviously, that’s been down in recent years, but that’s never to say that it’s not going to pick up at any point,” said Justin Castrejon, a Border Patrol agent with the El Centro Sector in California.
The El Centro Sector seized 49,000 pounds of marijuana in of 2011, Castrejon said. To date in 2017, the El Centro Sector has seized just 4,000 pounds of marijuana.
At the same time, some officers say they’ve seen an increase in cartel activity on the U.S. side of the border.
“The cartel’s going to grow their marijuana in California because the risk is minimal,” said Paul Bennett, a lieutenant with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in California. “We have immediately seen and began to experience an increase in these large-scale … plantations where 10,000, 25,000 plants are just growing in the open on public lands.”
Legalizing marijuana at a state level has made the logistics of drug trafficking easier for cartels, Bennett said. They face only misdemeanor penalties in California and no longer need to worry about getting the drug through border security.
In Oregon, a draft assessment of the state’s legal marketplace from the Oregon State Police estimated that the legal marijuana market makes up just 30% of Oregon’s entire marijuana market. Growers may be producing nearly 2 million more pounds of marijuana annually than police know to be consumed in the state.
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Legalization “has provided an effective means to launder…