On Aug. 29, an Obama administration memo prompted intense speculation that the feds may be finally calling off the decades-long war on weed. While marijuana remains illegal under federal law, the memo stated, federal prosecutors won't intervene if states such as Colorado and Washington that legalized it for recreational use ensure that organized crime doesn't profit from these states' laws.
This, after a yearlong crackdown on California's medical weed industry in which countless dispensaries closed and landlords such as Anaheim's Tony Jalali were threatened with seizure of their buildings. In Jalali's case it was over a frivolous $37 pot sale, as Nick Schou reported in OC Weekly. And even now, Colorado authorities are seizing weed shipments.
Against this backdrop, Schou unveils in his new book released by Chicago Review Press, "The Weed Runners: Travels With the Outlaw Capitalists of America's Medical Marijuana Trade," that a seldom-acknowledged war between West Coast growers and increasingly canny Mexican cartel growers to supply this demand is growing ever more dangerous and bizarre. Stakes are high, with a pound of weed selling to an illegal dealer for four times what a legal dispensary will pay. Here's one surreal scene from his book:
"That's some pretty good-looking herb you got there."
It's about 10:00 AM on a brisk November day, and I'm driving my rental car out of Oakland International Airport. Christopher Glew is talking to his client, a man who for the purposes of this book we'll call Lucky, who has just opened up his carry-on backpack to reveal three ounces of freshly manicured marijuana. The weed amounts to a sample kit of a freshly harvested Snowcap strain which Lucky grew at one of his nurseries in Southern California. He plans to show it to a potential buyer in the Bay Area, in the hopes of arranging a large-scale deal—although Glew knows nothing of this plan and Lucky won't reveal it to me until later, when he apparently figures that I might somehow help him pull it off.
At the moment, we're heading to a meeting with the owners of a medical marijuana delivery service called the Green Spot, the largest such operation in the San Francisco Bay Area. Instead of his usual pinstripe-suit-and-monogrammed-cufflinks courtroom attire, Glew is dressed in jeans and a black-and-orange leather jacket with the Harley Davidson logo splashed across the shoulders. Lucky is wearing a Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim baseball cap, a baggy designer jersey, and even baggier black jeans. He's in a particularly good mood, and hasn't stopped talking since he got in the car.
"You know what's interesting?" Lucky asks.
As usual, he doesn't wait for an answer.
"I called TSA to find out how much I could take on the plane and they said it's all determined by the doctor."
"TSA said that, really?" Glew asks, not buying it.
"Yeah," Lucky says. "And then I called Southwest Airlines and they said, 'We have no policy at all about weed.' So I've been flying with three or four ounces now. The last time I flew, I took it right out on my seat tray and started looking through the samples."
"No you didn't," Glew says.
"I swear to God, I did," Lucky insists. "I'll do it on the way back. I'll film the whole thing. I should put it on YouTube, because everyone I've told about this can't believe I would do it. But I had to bring some samples on the plane because I've got some stuff that will get some amazing [prices] up here."
The high-grade marijuana Lucky is carrying sells for $800 a pound in California, but could easily earn $2,000 or $2,500 per pound in New York City. Or at least that's what Lucky says. He would know because, as it happens, he arranges cross-country deals every few weeks. "You sell in the right place, and there you go, you're making $1,300 a pound. Do a hundred deals like that, and well, that's what everyone is trying to do out here: pack up as many of these things as they can and ship them back east."
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Of course, high-grade medical-quality pot brokers such as Lucky aren't the only ones trying to sell as many ounces as possible from coast to coast. There's also the murderous Mexican cartels.
The medical marijuana marketplace north of the border has led to a vastly superior quality of weed on the shelf, but the cartels are rapidly adjusting to this fact, and the federal government's crackdown has eliminated many of their north-of-the-border competitors.
As we head north from the industrial outskirts of Oakland into the steep, treelined hills of Berkeley, Lucky's lecture about the economics of pot smuggling rapidly devolves into a litany against the Mexican drug cartels he says are ruining the industry.
"They come up here and buy strains from Americans—we're talking California growers who have high-end strains," he says. "And they'll buy these clones that are guaranteed female. They buy the plants! They've learned enough now to turn some of these plants into mothers, so they are learning to clone. And that is something they've never done in the past—you've never seen the Mexicans cloning."
Lucky and other California-based pot cultivators and distributors have no choice but to grow their crops on their own land, or on rented properties, like warehouses, where they can hide large indoor nurseries. The cartels, meanwhile, tend to establish vast outdoor plantations deep inside US National Forest areas. "They're camping out there and have so much time on their hands while their gardens are developing, so they start making speed," Lucky complains. "They're making amphetamines because they can turn that around in a week and use those revenues to generate and finance their gardens."
As the cartels have become more adept at competing with their American competitors, they're constantly on the hunt for access to not only new, higher-end strains, but also technical expertise. "I was personally offered a large sum of money to go to Michoacan and teach them how to make oils and extracts," he says, referring to the various concentrated byproducts of marijuana, mostly liquids like hash oil that pack a powerful high, or solids that can be turned into pill form or baked into edible products like pot brownies. These products can be made purely from the "trim," or excess leaves that are typically manicured off the marijuana before sale, and which usually end up as garden waste.
"Let's say you have a million-dollar garden," Lucky explains. "The trim is 15 percent of your yield. The Mexicans want to learn how to use it so they can add another $150,000 to [their] revenues. So these guys have realized they have a lot of trim and now they're paying people to come down and teach them—offering to put people up in nice, beautiful million-dollar homes that overlook the ocean, and all the women that you want, and someone offered me . . . that a couple of weeks ago."
Lucky says he refused the offer because he didn't have the "political ties" to feel safe while south of the border. "I would never go to Mexico," he says. "But they're looking for people and they're willing to pay big money. I can guarantee you: in my little circle of people that I've taught how to make the crap, there's somebody that's hungry enough for twenty or thirty grand right now that will jump on that bandwagon. It's just going to be a matter of who that guy is. And once he's done that, they're going to learn that trade, and then it just becomes infectious, and now watch what they're smuggling in: oils and hash and pot that sells in America for $1,500 a pound and they've got it for $600 a pound!"
So far, there's no evidence that the cartels are smuggling oils, extracts, or edibles into the United States, but Lucky's right about their growing sophistication when it comes to breaking into the high-grade medical-marijuana market. On November 15, 2011, for example, US Department of Homeland Security agents seized seventeen tons of marijuana on the US-Mexico border when they discovered a tunnel that appears to be the passage of one of the largest cross-border smuggling operations in recent years.
According to an Associated Press story on the bust, the tunnel was some four hundred yards long and stretched between a pair of warehouses on either side of the border—one in San Diego and the other in Tijuana. The feds told the AP that the tunnel was "one of the most significant secret passages ever found on the US-Mexico border."
Both US and Mexican feds cooperated on the bust. Nine tons were retrieved from the warehouse in San Diego and eight tons were found on the Mexican side of the border. Agents apparently had the US warehouse under surveillance, and followed two men "in a truck packed with about three tons of pot." A California Highway Patrol officer pulled the truck over and "was overwhelmed by the smell," the AP reported.
Of course there's nothing too unusual about the feds seizing tons of pot headed into the US from south of the border. Two similar tunnels discovered in 2010, for example, led to the seizure of some fifty tons of weed. But what made this particular bust interesting is the kind of marijuana that was seized. It wasn't the generic Mexican brick weed, but stuff that wouldn't have looked out of place on the shelves of the most well-appointed dispensaries in California. To top it off, the Mexican pot was even packaged to look like homegrown medical marijuana, complete with labels that had the names of all-American-sounding strains such as Sprite, Bud Light, and Captain America.