Long before cannabis became legal in Oregon, people were growing weed extensively throughout its thick, wet forests. The climate was simply ideal, and growers were sending it across state lines for bigger profits. Nowadays, smuggling continues, only this time, it is legally grown cannabis leaving the state. All of this trafficking is putting major strain on America’s multibillion-dollar cannabis industry.
In response to this risk, weed-friendly states are doing everything they possibly can to stop this diversion, despite the fact that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is pressing for more enforcement of federal marijuana laws. Seed-to-sale tracking systems are helping states monitor their legal market, and they see this software as the best way to defeat illegal cannabis smuggling.
The goal of seed-to-sale technology is to track legal marijuana from the field or greenhouse where it grows, to the shop that sells it, and finally to the person who consumes it. They use strain names, such as Chernobyl and Blueberry Kush, to track successfully, and so far, this remains the state’s most protective measure against marijuana trafficking.
Recently, Governor Kate Brown of Oregon signed a new requirement into law, making it mandatory for state regulators to track all cannabis grown in the state’s legal market from seed to store. To date, only recreational weed has had extensive tracking. Oregon House speaker, Tina Kotek, had this to say about it, “We are protecting the new industry that we are supporting here.”
Kotek also said, “There was a real recognition that things could be changing in D.C.” According to the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board, it is replacing its current tracking program with a “highly secure, reliable, scalable, and flexible system” by no later than November 1, 2017. It seems that most legal states are in hot pursuit.
In California, voters already approved a specific tracking system for its recreational marijuana market. Although sales will only become legal on January 1, 2018, the state made the decision to use Lakeland, Florida-based Franwell for its tracking requirements. Franwell is already tracking marijuana in Oregon, Alaska, Colorado, Maryland and Michigan, as well as using radiofrequency and bar-code identification labels on all plants and packaging.
According to Michael Crabtree, a Denver-based consultant from Nationwide Compliance Specialists, Inc., which helps tax collectors monitor cash-heavy, elusive industries, such as the cannabis market, “The tracking system is the most important tool a state has, but the systems are not fool-proof. They rely on the users’ honesty.”
Crabtree says that there are “numerous examples of people ‘forgetting’ to tag plants.” The system has other shortfalls too. In Colorado, tracking does not apply to most noncommercial caregivers or to plants grown at home. In California, it could take years to implement an operational, legal market. This is according to Senator Mike McGuire, representative of the “Emerald Triangle” area.
In the future, the Emerald Triangle is likely to produce as much as 60 percent of all legal marijuana in the United States. McGuire said he is confident that tracking will help curb illegal smuggling, and that, “In the first 24 months, we are going to have a good idea who is in the regulated market and who is in the black market.”
In 1973, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize personal possession of marijuana. In 1998, it made medical cannabis legal for patients, and it legalized recreational use in 2014. Before this, illegal growers were hiding large marijuana crops from aerial surveillance under the forest canopy, only tending to them under the right light conditions, such as dawn or dusk, when light is just enough to see.
According to Anthony Taylor, former illegal grower turned licensed lobbyist, “In those days, marijuana was really illegal. If you got caught growing the amounts we were growing, you were going to go to prison for a number of years.” He believes it is now easier to grow illegally than ever before, as authorities do not have the resources to locate every illegal operation.
Furthermore, growers selling across state lines can earn as much as thousands of dollars for every pound, giving them real incentive to traffic it out of state. Despite these statistics, it is difficult to know if smuggling in Oregon has worsened over the years or not, or even how much weed leaving the state is even from the legal market to begin with.
The federally funded Oregon-Idaho High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program’s executive director, Chris Gibson, claimed that the distinction does not matter as much as the fact that cannabis continues to leave the state on trains, planes, cars, and even in the mail. He told the Associated Press, “None is supposed to leave, so it is an issue. That should be a primary concern to state leadership.”
U.S. Republican Earl Blumenauer, D-Or., has this to say about it, “Marijuana has left Oregon for decades. What is different is that now we have better mechanisms to try to control it.” Recently, Oregon’s U.S. Attorney, Billy Williams, sat with a draft State Police report in front of him. According to this report, Oregon produces far more marijuana than what people are physically able to consume.
Using estimates of illegal grows and statistics from the legal market, the report said that Oregon produces approximately 1,000 metric tons too much. It identified Oregon as an “epicenter of cannabis production,” saying that as much as five times more weed leaves the state than is consumed inside it. In a letter to Oregon’s governor on July 24, Sessions cited this report himself.
In his letter, Sessions asked Brown how the State of Oregon plans to address the “serious findings” of this report. According to licensed grower and enforcement and compliance expert Pete Gendron, the report is mere guesswork, relying on outdated statistics that do not even include marijuana currently for sale in Oregon’s legal recreational market.
Recently, a task force from the U.S. Justice Department said that the Cole Memorandum, which protects legal states from federal law enforcement, should undergo reevaluation to determine whether it is possible to make changes to it. In April, the governors of Alaska, Washington, Colorado, and Oregon, all states with legal recreational and medical laws, sent out a warning.
Collectively, they wrote to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Sessions, warning that any alterations to the memorandum “would divert existing marijuana product into the black market and increase dangerous activity in our and neighboring states.” Shortly afterward, Sessions wrote to congressional leaders, criticizing their unwillingness to give the federal government more enforcement authority.
Taylor believes that marijuana smuggling will continue, perhaps even increase. With cannabis being illegal at the federal level, profit incentives remain high for traffickers. Smuggling will only decrease when the federal government legalizes marijuana nationally. On August 1, U.S. Senator Cory Booker, D-N.J., introduced a new bill in Congress. It aims to do exactly that.