DENVER – Seeking a safe haven in Colorado’s legal marijuana marketplace, illegal drug traffickers are growing weed among the state’s sanctioned pot warehouses and farms, then covertly shipping it elsewhere and pocketing millions of dollars from the sale, according to law enforcement officials and court records consulted by The Associated Press.
In one case, the owner of a skydiving business crammed hundreds of pounds of Colorado pot into his planes and flew the weed to Minnesota, where associates allegedly sold it for millions of dollars in cash. In another, a Denver man was charged with sending more than 100 pot-filled FedEx packages to Buffalo, New York, where drug dealers divvied up the shipment. Twenty other drug traffickers, many from Cuba, were accused of relocating to Colorado to grow marijuana that they sent to Florida, where it can fetch more than double the price in a legal Colorado shop.
These cases and others confirm a long-standing fear of marijuana opponents that the state’s much-watched experiment in legal pot would invite more illegal trafficking to other states where the drug is still strictly forbidden.
One source is Colorado residents or tourists who buy retail pot and take it out of state. But more concerning to authorities are larger-scale traffickers who move here specifically to grow the drug and ship to more lucrative markets.
The trend also bolsters the argument of neighboring Nebraska and Oklahoma, which filed a lawsuit in late 2014 seeking to declare Colorado’s pot legalization unconstitutional, arguing that the move sent a tide of illicit weed across their borders. The Obama administration last month urged the Supreme Court to reject the lawsuit, saying that the leakage was not Colorado’s fault.
No one knows exactly how much pot leaves Colorado. When illegal shipments are seized, it’s often impossible to prove where the marijuana was grown. But court documents and interviews with law enforcement officials indicate well-organized traffickers are seeking refuge in Colorado’s flourishing pot industry.
“There’s no question there’s a lot more of this activity than there was two years ago,” said Colorado’s U.S. attorney, John Walsh. Some in the legal industry say police have exaggerated the problem and put unfair scrutiny on people who legally grow pot on behalf of patients. Lawmakers last year limited unregulated pot growers to no more than 99 plants in an effort to crack down on those selling untaxed pot.
The federal government allowed Colorado’s experiment on the condition that state officials act to keep marijuana from migrating to places where it is still outlawed and out of the hands of criminal cartels. Federal authorities acknowledge that both things are happening but say that, because the state is trying to keep its industry tightly regulated, there’s no reason to end the legal pot trade.
The pot industry also acknowledges the criminal activity and insists it is doing all it can to keep legally grown weed from crossing state lines. Among other safeguards, Colorado law requires growers to get a license and use a “seed-to-sale” tracking system that monitors marijuana plants at every stage.
Many of the illicit growers come from elsewhere, never obtain a growing license and “don’t even attempt to adhere to the law,” said Barbra M. Roach, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Denver field division.
“It’s like hiding in plain sight,” she said.