Pot smuggling arrests at LAX have surged 166% since marijuana legalization
Los Angeles Times May 2019
Waiting to board his Philadelphia-bound flight with his dog Odie, Vechell had sparked concern when he sidled up to another passenger and asked if she wanted to join his “drug smuggling ring,” authorities say.
Although Vechell told LAX police it was just a misunderstanding, officers demanded to see his checked baggage. Inside, they found nearly 70 pounds of vacuum-sealed marijuana bundled into packages labeled “T-shirts,” “cold weather” and “sexy pants.”
More than a year after California legalized the recreational use of cannabis, trafficking arrests like Vechell’s have surged 166% at LAX, according to arrest records obtained by the Los Angeles Times.
Emboldened by legalization and facing only light punishment if captured, more and more smugglers are taking to the friendly skies in an effort to escape California’s glutted cannabis market, according to authorities, marijuana industry experts and a lawyer who represents accused smugglers. As a result, the world’s fourth-busiest airport is now an expanding hub in the illegal export of marijuana, they say.
The sudden increase in airport smuggling is largely the result of legalization and a saturated market. California grows far more marijuana than its residents consume – up to five times more by some accounts – and cannabis users in other states will pay a much higher price.
“Since pot’s been legalized in California, there’s no money to be made because everyone got involved in it,” Kroger said. “They’ve got these big 50,000-square-foot [grow] houses, and they’re flooding the market. The money is outside of California.”
… the number of traffickers using commercial airlines appears to be growing.
Kroger said the consequences for getting stopped at a California airport with two checked bags of marijuana were relatively minor: a misdemeanor charge for someone without a history of drug or violent offenses.
In the eyes of the federal government, the surge in smuggling is a clear case of “I told you so.”
“I don’t think we’re surprised by the numbers. These are things we foresaw and we’ve warned folks about,” said Kyle Mori of the DEA’s Los Angeles office. “When states legalize it, you give folks a false sense of security that they can come through TSA checkpoints…. They believe what they’re doing is legal.”
Last year at LAX, there were 503 reports of marijuana discovered in bags, and only one-fifth of them involved trafficking suspects. In comparison, there were 400 reports of marijuana in 2017 and 282 reports in 2016.
Hundreds of passengers now regularly pack personal amounts of marijuana, cannabis oil or edibles in their carry-on or checked baggage assuming it’s legal to fly with, forgetting that the federal government has dominion over the skies.
Among those stopped was a UCLA student-athlete on scholarship who was carrying 34 grams of marijuana – nearly 6 grams more than the state permits one person to carry – and a pipe in her purse. The woman “spontaneously said that the marijuana was hers and she was sorry for having it.” Officers let her off with a warning, and she continued on her flight without the marijuana.
Traffickers, however, will put more effort into concealing large amounts of cannabis and its derivatives, either by wrapping the contraband in things like wax paper, tinfoil or gift wrapping or disguising their products as candy or other foods.
Such was the case Nov. 14 when TSA employees scanning checked luggage opened five suitcases that had failed to produce a scanned image on their monitors.
The luggage belonged to two men on a Newark-bound flight and contained more than 100 pounds of cannabis products, according to arrest reports.
In December, police arrested a man carrying 3 pounds of edibles and cannabis oil in his luggage. The suspect said he was struck by how low the prices were at the Inglewood dispensary he was visiting compared with prices he found at home in Hagerstown, Md.
In numerous arrest reports reviewed by the Los Angeles Times, trafficking suspects told police they flew to California to purchase better and cheaper cannabis products to sell for a profit back home.
When some states legalize marijuana but others do not, suppliers will move in to fill that void even if it’s through black market channels, said California Cannabis Industry Assn. spokesman Josh Drayton. A pound of marijuana flower that costs $600 to $800 in California can be resold for $4,000 in the Midwest, he said.
Despite the increase in commercial aviation trafficking incidents, marijuana remains a low enforcement priority, police say. The DEA’s stance is that the drug has no medical benefit and that legalizing it increases DUI-related arrests, crashes and helps fund Mexican cartels. But beyond that, their immediate focus is elsewhere.
“Heroin trafficking,” Mori said, “and the diversion of chemicals and pharmaceuticals into the hands of gang members and violent criminals – those are certainly our priority.”
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