Pubdate: Sat, 14 May 2016
Source: Chicago Sun-Times (IL)
Copyright: 2016 Sun-Times Media, LLC
Author: Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY


State's High- Grade Marijuana Is in Big Demand on Black Market

DENVER - If you can dream up a way to smuggle marijuana out of 
Colorado, chances are someone else has already tried it: Cars and 
trucks. Potato chip bags and jars of peanut butter. The U. S. mail.

Not even the sky is the limit: A pilot last year confessed he used 
his skydiving planes to deliver nearly a ton of pot to buyers in 
Texas and Minnesota, court records show.

Authorities say growers are using loopholes in Colorado's legal 
cannabis system to produce marijuana destined for illegal export, 
tempted by the high prices that Colorado's high-grade marijuana 
commands on the black market, including convenient and discreet 
marijuana-infused candy.

And with margins of as much as 300%, smugglers are willing to take big risks.

"What we're hearing from out of state is that the best dope around is 
Colorado dope," says Tom Gorman, director of the Rocky Mountain High 
Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force, which operates in 
Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. "It's high quality, and then you have the 
edibles and the hash oil."

The flow of high-quality marijuana out of Colorado has already 
prompted a lawsuit from the attorneys general in Nebraska and 
Oklahoma, who say their local jails are being overwhelmed by 
smugglers getting caught with Colorado pot. The U. S. Supreme Court 
in March declined to hear that lawsuit, and officials in Nebraska and 
Oklahoma are considering their options.

That's put Colorado authorities in the position of defending the 
state on the very issue its neighbors had griped about before it 
legalized marijuana: that it would foster more criminal activity. 
Legalization advocates argue that smuggling would stop if other 
states would simply change their laws to reflect the reality that 
marijuana is a widely used drug.

"These guys are on the wrong side of history," said Mason Tvert of 
the national Marijuana Policy Project.

Marijuana is illegal in every state surrounding Colorado, and law 
enforcement is looking for it. The sheriff in Deuel County, Neb., has 
an evidence room piled high with Colorado marijuana his deputies have 
confiscated from drivers crossing the border.

"A big decision a jurisdiction has to make is how much money they 
want to put into going after those who participate in the black 
market or the grey market," said Beau Kilmer, the co-director of the 
RAND Drug Policy Research Center in Santa Monica, Calif. "It's not a 
surprise this is an issue."

Gorman's task force says investigators in 2014 made 360 seizures of 
Colorado pot destined for other states, a nearly 600% increase in 
individual stops in a decade, seizing about 3,671 pounds in 2014. But 
those seizure reports are only from statewide agencies, not smaller 
police departments that also make seizures during traffic stops. Of 
the 360 seizures reported in 2014, 36 different states were 
identified as destinations, the most common being Kansas, Missouri, 
Illinois, Oklahoma and Florida.

While Colorado law makes growing and possessing small amounts of 
marijuana legal, it's still illegal to grow massive quantities 
without specific state approval, and all sales are supposed to stay 
within the regulated marketplace. Last year, investigators arrested 
32 people and seized more than two tons of marijuana and $ 10 million 
in cash - from a single marijuana-smuggling operation.

"Illegal drug dealers are simply hiding in plain sight, attempting to 
use the legalized market as a cover," Colorado Attorney General 
Cynthia Coffman said.

There is confusion over the law as well. Cops in neighboring states 
say some people they catch with Colorado marijuana show a receipt to 
prove they bought it legally - apparently forgetting that Colorado 
law makes it illegal to take that pot across state borders.

In one unusual twist, a skydiving pilot admitted to flying at least 
1,000 pounds of marijuana from Colorado to Minnesota. The pilot told 
investigators the illegal grow operations he worked for were 
producing 100- 400 pounds of marijuana monthly and generated at least 
$ 12 million over three years, police said. A pound of high-grade 
Colorado marijuana selling legally in state for $ 2,000 can fetch $ 
6,000 on the black market, investigators said.

"If you look at all the odds, if you're going to grow marijuana, 
where are you going to grow it? Colorado," Gorman says.

Out-of-state growers assume that even if Colorado officials discover 
their illegal grows, they won't face the same penalties they would in 
Florida, for example. That cuts down on the risk, which they further 
minimize by either mailing packages with fake return addresses, or 
hiring someone to drive it out in a rental car, Gorman says.

The U. S. Mail, it turns out, is a particularly tempting vehicle for 
some drug traffickers. They grow or buy marijuana legally in 
Colorado, package it, slap some postage on it and hope no one looks 
or smells too carefully. Unfortunately for them, mailing marijuana is 
a federal crime, and often draws heavy penalties.

And postal inspectors are on the lookout.

"You're not the brightest if you ship things through the mail," said 
Summit County Sheriff John Minor.
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