In the past, people could only get weed in one of two ways: They had to either grow it illegally at home or purchase it on the black market. It is very different today. At least 205 million people now have access to legal marijuana, whether medicinally or recreationally, if they live in a state that allows it. Everyone else still relies on the illegal marijuana market, and smugglers are taking full advantage of it.
Illegal traders are cultivating and shipping huge quantities of illegal weed throughout the United States. They are sending it via email, driving it across state lines, and some are even using skydiving planes to fly it. To hide the smell from police officers, they are vacuum sealing it and hiding it in car trunks and truck beds. On-duty officers patrolling the interstates are unable to stop this illicit trade.
Most grow it in states where cultivation is legal, such as California and Colorado. They then sell their harvests on the black market in states where it is still illegal. In June this year, Colorado officials made a huge bust: A 74-person operation was producing 100 pounds of weed every month for over four years, generating at least $200,000 each month completely tax-free.
In Denver, police confiscated two tons of marijuana from various warehouses and private homes in the metropolitan area. The scheme involved several father-son teams, as well as former players of professional football. For years now, law enforcement officers have been warning of this, saying that legalization will not stop crime and will make it easier for those wanting to make quick money.
Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman agrees with this sentiment, claiming that all legalization does is give criminals the cover they need to operate with impunity. The black market has been the only source of marijuana for decades in the United States, but then Colorado legalized it in 2012. Other states soon followed, and now, nearly 65 million people live in states where weed is legal for any reason.
For a long time now, those advocating legalization have been arguing that regulation catapults the industry into the public eye and moves it out of the shadows, making it a taxable product and effectively eliminating the black market. However, because many states have yet to legalize, smugglers are finding loopholes in these mismatching laws.
They have enough incentive to continue the illegal marijuana market. A single pound of weed may sell for $2,000 in Colorado, but it can fetch a price three times higher in a big city on the East Coast. According to the U.S. Border Patrol, much less weed crosses the U.S. border these days. Between 2011 and 2016, weed seizures almost halved to 1.3 million pounds from 2.5 million pounds.
The cause of this decline remains speculation. Border agents are hesitant to guess at the reasons. However, during this same period, people increasingly began buying weed domestically. According to a Border Patrol agent from the El Centro Sector in California, illegal cross-border smuggling peaked in 2011. Although it has been declining steadily, it could increase again at any point in the future.
In 2011, the El Centro Sector confiscated 49,000 pounds of cannabis. Since then and up until today, seizures by the El Centro Sector have only amounted to 4,000 pounds of pot. Officers say that, at the same time, cartel activity has been increasing rapidly, but on the U.S. side of the border and not outside. Smugglers have moved into the country and no longer need to import or export across borders.
Because it is legal to grow weed in states like Colorado and California, cartels are simply cultivating there. The risk to them is minimal. Paul Bennett, a lieutenant officer from California’s own Riverside County Sheriff Department, says, “We have immediately seen and begun to experience an increase in these large-scale plantations where 10,000, 25,000 plants are just growing openly on public lands.”
For cartels, drug trafficking and the logistics of it has become much easier where marijuana is legal at the state level. If caught, they only face misdemeanor penalties, and they do not have to worry anymore about getting marijuana through tight border security. The problem is widespread in every state where marijuana is legal. Oregon has similar issues.
The Oregon State Police conducted a draft assessment of its legal marketplace. It estimates that of Oregon’s entire cannabis market, only 30 percent operates legally. Cultivators are growing nearly two million more pounds of weed every year than the state is actually consuming. It seems that legalization is creating an ideal environment for the illegal drug trade to continue unabated, and even thrive.
According to the Oregon report, “Legalization has provided an effective means to launder cannabis products and proceeds, where in essence, actors can exploit legal mechanisms to obscure products’ origins and conceal true profits, thereby blurring the boundaries of the legal market and complicating enforcement efforts.”
It goes on to say, “The illicit exportation of cannabis must be stemmed as it undermines the spirit of the law and the integrity of the legal market.” Already, the flow of weed from Colorado is prompting lawsuits from attorney generals in both Oklahoma and Nebraska, who say that criminals smuggling Colorado pot are overwhelming their prisons.