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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 that 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 locals 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.
But marijuana remains illegal in every state surrounding Colorado, and law enforcement in those neighbors are 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 marijuana destined for other states, a nearly 600% increase in the number of 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,” says Gorman.
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, wrap it up in a variety of packages, 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 from federal prosecutors.
And postal inspectors are on the lookout.
“You’re not the brightest if you ship things through the mail,” said John Minor, the sheriff of Summit County, home to the tourist-drawing ski areas of Arapaho Basin, Keystone, Breckenridge and Copper Mountain. “It’s not uncommon for people to come up here and leave their common sense at home.”
Few reliable statistics exist about how much marijuana is leaving Colorado. Postal inspectors report their seizures to a national database, which the agency refuses to break down into state-by-state reports. In 2013, postal inspectors reported seizing 45,000 pound of marijuana nationwide, with that number dropping to 34,305 pounds last year, according to the postal service. Drug smugglers generally prefer U.S. Mail because cops generally need a warrant to open it, while parcels sent through FedEx or UPS generally can be opened by the carrier.
Minor’s deputies worked with U.S. Postal inspectors two years ago to conduct a five-day marijuana-trafficking sting operation at the county’s four post offices, arresting 10 people.
Those arrests didn’t seem to deter people much. Last month, the Breckenridge Police Department arrested three men and seized 35 pounds of pot following a yearlong joint investigation with the U.S. Postal Service.
Postal service officials declined to comment on specifics, including the measures they take to detect marijuana being sent through the mail. Investigators say talking about how they detect marijuana could tip off smugglers to better techniques.
Now there’s a new wrinkle to the drug trade: edibles.
Users in Colorado have increasingly turned to marijuana-infused foods or oil to get high. Both the foods and the oil are much harder to detect than marijuana plants because they don’t carry the typical marijuana smell that police officers are trained to recognize. They’re also much more dense than plants, making them easier to hide and transport, and contain much more of the active THC compound, pound-for-pound. Marijuana edibles look just like normal candies, while the oil can easily be packaged in cartridges that look like e-cigarettes.
“There’s definitely money to be made, and the inspectors can only inspect so many boxes,” Kilmer said.