WICHITA, Kan. (AP) – This is not your old man’s marijuana.
As more states decriminalize marijuana, a burgeoning domestic pot industry has transformed the quality and potency of the weed now hitting the streets – not only in western states which have made it legal to smoke it, but in neighboring states like Kansas that have become reluctant way stations for the high-grade marijuana flowing across their borders to more populated cities out east.
In the past, law enforcement seized mostly compressed marijuana bricks – much of it coming from Mexico – that fetch between $400 and $500 a pound. Now authorities are mostly intercepting medical-grade, domestically grown marijuana that people typically buy for around $1,500 a pound in Colorado and can sell for double or more of that back east, said Dale Quigley, manager of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area’s investigative support center. The group represents a coalition of law enforcement agencies in the region, created by Congress to address drug trafficking.
Among those on the front lines of the nation’s narcotics trade is Lt. Chris Bannister with the undercover narcotics division of the Wichita Police Department. Only a few years ago, 70 percent of the pot seized in the city was pressed marijuana, mostly coming in from Mexico, he said. Today, about 85 percent of the marijuana seized is medical-grade and just 15 percent “traditional marijuana.”
“The quality is there, the demand is there and the price reflects that,” Bannister said. “And it is driving down the price of traditional pressed marijuana.”
California’s Emerald Triangle – encompassing Mendocino, Trinity and Humboldt counties – produce some of the nation’s finest marijuana, said Lt. Brian Smith, who oversees the Kansas Highway Patrol’s drug interdiction unit. Other major domestic marijuana comes from Colorado, Washington and Oregon.
Busts involving Colorado weed were made last year in at least 23 states, according to a RMHIDTA study.
“Drugs go east, cash goes west. Really the Colorado angle is that it is just a different source, it is not so much that the amount of drugs and money on the highways has really changed,” said Chris Joseph, a Topeka attorney who specializes in drug-related traffic cases. “I mean, like in any business, logistics matter. If your source can be Colorado instead of California and you are on the East Coast, hey, save a little bit of cost and risk by buying from Colorado.”
The Kansas Highway Patrol alone made 468 felony trafficking arrests and seized nearly 7,000 pounds of marijuana last year, according to information obtained by The Associated Press through an open records request. The agency seized 2,654 pounds and arrested 187 people during the first five months this year. A KHP analysis of those 133 felony pot trafficking cases in early 2013 showed 79 seizures were of Colorado marijuana, with California weed next in 35 incidents.
“When we talk to people they have been told to stay out of Kansas, or go around Kansas,” Smith said.
Kansas troopers also seized roughly $4 million in drug-related cash last year, and about $1.3 million during the first five months of this year.
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana use, and Illinois has passed a bill legalizing medicinal pot that is awaiting the governor’s signature, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. Washington and Colorado became the first states last fall to enact laws legalizing recreational marijuana. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law.
Justice Department spokeswoman Allison Price would say only that it is “considering all aspects of this issue” as it continues to review the ballot initiatives.
But conservative states like Kansas, where pot remains illegal, aren’t waiting for the feds to act.
When a Kansas judge acquitted a Colorado man caught with medical marijuana – ruling his prosecution “impermissibly interfered with his constitutional right to interstate travel” – authorities appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court. In March, the justices ruled that people who bring marijuana into Kansas can be prosecuted.
The practice of setting up bogus signs – such as “Drug Check Ahead” and “Drug Dogs in Use” – along highways, then stopping motorists who took rural exits to avoid them, spurred a ruling last year by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals to curb abuses. The appeals court said in a Kansas case that the ruse alone was not enough to justify stopping vehicles.
KHP says it still uses them and insists it has additional probable cause when troopers stop vehicles.
The Marijuana Policy Project claims legalization will curb trafficking because dealers will not risk losing their state licenses. It argues tightly controlled regulation is better than the current uncontrolled trafficking.
“Our goal should be to reduce the trafficking of marijuana into the United States from drug cartels in Mexico – and Colorado is taking steps to eliminate that drug cartel activity,” said Mason Tvert, the group’s spokesman. “The goal should be to control it and Colorado is taking steps to do that. I cannot see a single reason why other states would find that problematic.”
But authorities contend demand and greed will boost the black market in states where pot remains illegal.
“If it didn’t work with medical (marijuana) when it was regulated there is no indication it will work with this,” said Thomas Gorman, director of the RMHIDTA. “It is going to be more available, the competition is going to lower the price, there is going to be less perception of risk – and with all that you have increased use and increased use and increased diversion.”
– By ROXANA HEGEMAN, Associated Press
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