Kansas at crossroads of marijuana trafficking

07/28/2013 12:02 PM

07/28/2013 12:02 PM

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 that 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 that or more 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.

Only a few years ago, 70 percent of the pot seized in Wichita was pressed marijuana, mostly coming from Mexico, said Chris Bannister with the undercover narcotics division of the Wichita Police Department. 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 – produces 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.

The Kansas Highway Patrol 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 of 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.

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 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 Marijuana Policy Project maintains tightly controlled regulation of pot 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.

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