British Columbia·GREENLIT

Legal weed might lead to growth in illegal pot operations

British Columbians preparing for the imminent legalization of recreational cannabis may want to look to Colorado, where four years of legal weed have come with a dramatic increase in criminal cannabis operations, according to law enforcement officials.

B.C. may want to look to Colorado's experience as illegal cannabis still flourishes

A cannabis plant growing at a legal facility in Denver, Colorado, is covered in tiny white crystals. (Geoff Turner/CBC)

British Columbians preparing for the approaching legalization of recreational weed may want to look to Colorado, where four years of legal pot have come with a dramatic increase in criminal cannabis operations, according to law enforcement officials.

Glenn Gaasche was the agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) field office in Grand Junction, Colo., until he retired at the end of last year. He said that since 2014, he watched the number of seizures of cannabis sky-rocket.

"Our black market has increased twenty-fold," said Gaasche. "In Grand Junction alone, we're dealing with a flood, a tidal wave of both individual criminals that are coming here and setting up illegal grows, and criminal organizations that are coming here and setting up illegal grows."

Gaasche said in 2014 he seized a couple hundred pounds of pot, but that steadily rose to about 13 tonnes in 2017.

According to the Colorado Department of Public Safety, charges for the production of illegal marijuana after 2014 shot up 278 per cent by 2016, when there were 476 arrests. In addition to growers operating beyond the bounds of the legal market, those charges include unlicensed processing of THC-based products.


This story is part of Greenlit, a CBC Vancouver series exploring ways the legalization of marijuana will affect B.C. Other stories in the series include:


Grown in Colorado, shipped out of state

Gaasche believes criminal elements are flocking to Colorado because there's a perception that the legal market will give them a degree of cover, and reduce the risk. He said the pot is being shipped straight back out of the state to other jurisdictions, where authorities haven't legalized recreational cannabis.

"I just don't think it's possible to sell tonne quantities of marijuana into the legal market," he said. "It's not like they could sneak that in the back door unnoticed."

Gaasche said the state's neighbours are noticing the illicit Colorado product.

"Our surrounding states: their seizures of Colorado marijuana are sky high."

It's unclear if this would happen in B.C., where neighbouring jurisdictions would mostly have similar rules.

Colorado borders seven states that do not have legalized recreational marijuana. Note: not all states' laws are currently in effect. (Colorado Department of Public Safety & National Conference of State Legislatures)

In Denver, DEA public information officer Randy Ladd echoes Gaasche's concerns, but adds that he doesn't think all the illegal grass is shipped out of the state.

"The system is somewhat broken here," said Ladd. "There's a lot of very bad stuff going on here that's related to that."

'A very dark side to it'

Ladd said that people sometimes peddle pot right outside legal dispensaries in Denver (retail isn't permitted in Grand Junction), and they'll undercut the prices in the legitimate stores and, of course, skirt taxes.

Ladd has a warning for Canadians who think legalizing cannabis will snuff out the illegal market and the crime that goes with it, even if all the jurisdictions in Canada legalize the drug at the same time.

"There are people who come to Colorado, and they'll come to Canada if they can — they'll come from the United States and they'll come from around the world to rob people at gunpoint for their marijuana. They'll kill people," he said. "I can tell you, there's a very dark side to it."

Gaasche didn't strike the same alarming tone as Ladd, but he's confident a significant black market will run parallel to Canada's legal marijuana market.

"I would imagine your experience would be similar to ours," said Gaasche. "You're going to see the same thing."

Ladd's policy suggestion for B.C.? Create a market controlled by the government, "from seed to sale." He suggests the government keep production and retail within its complete control to avoid a lot of the 'grey market' messiness he sees in Colorado.

Do you have a question about what will change in our province when pot becomes legal? Email us your story idea at cbcnewsvancouver@cbc.ca.

With files from Geoff Turner

Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker

About the Author

Rafferty Baker is CBC Vancouver's mobile journalist. Follow him @raffertybaker