Black market cannabis is a growing problem

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One shipment was disguised as camera equipment. Another like shiitake mushroom.

But when law enforcement opened the boxes open for a closer look, they discovered thousands of pounds of marijuana worth tens of millions of dollars.

Twice this year the Oklahoma Narcotics Bureau has seized huge stashes of illicit weed packed into trucks destined for New York and New Jersey.

On Wednesday, authorities raided an Oklahoma City warehouse used as a distribution center for marijuana trafficking, seizing nearly 7,000 pounds of marijuana worth nearly $28 million. This followed a similar operation in April when they stopped some 7,000 pounds from going in the same direction.

Mark Woodward, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Narcotics Bureau, said activity in his state is up as criminals exploit cheap land and legal loopholes to profit from the illegal trade.

“On any given day, there are shipments of marijuana heading from Oklahoma plantations to the black market all over the United States,” he said.

New York is especially tempted by the illegal cannabis trade. This is due in part to the problem of legalizing recreational marijuana, as critics say excessive regulations and a complex licensing process have hindered legal efforts.

Illegal dispensaries are popping up all over the state, with New York City Mayor Eric Adams estimating the number employed in the Big Apple alone was about 1,500 in February. Meanwhile, the state has issued more than 200 licenses, but only mentions about 20 open dispensaries.

In June, the state’s Department of Taxes and Finance and the Office of Cannabis Management inspected 33 storefronts in New York, Ithaca and Binghamton, seizing at least 1,000 pounds of illegal cannabis worth more than $11 million, according to Gov. Cathy Hochul. Last week, New York police and state tax agents raided dispensaries in lower Manhattan, and most recently Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg reached an agreement to ban 11 stores, mostly on the Upper West Side, from selling illegal cannabis products.

perfect storm

Despite all of New York’s efforts, authorities still lack a good sense of where the weeds come from. Hemp is sold legally in a state usually grown within its borders and is subject to extensive regulation, resulting in higher costs for growers and consumers alike.

Oklahoma has emerged though as one of the simpler places to grow the crop. Medical marijuana was legalized in 2018 and licenses to sell cost just $2,500.

The regulatory framework is also much less stringent than in other countries. That encouraged growers to move from places like California and Nevada — among the first to legalize recreational marijuana use — to Oklahoma, a trend Woodward said the state is still seeing.

The state had more than 9,000 licensed cannabis farms by the end of 2021, which exceeds the number in California, according to The New York Times.

The amount skyrocketed, as Gov. Kevin State signed a moratorium on new grow, process and dispense licenses last year, which will run through August 2024. Voters also rejected the legalization of recreational marijuana in March.

The state legislature has tried to get more involved this year by imposing stricter limits on who can get medical marijuana cards and how much THC, the compound in cannabis that gets you high, is in each serving sold. But State vetoed the bill in June because those measures were accompanied by a delay in imposing higher license fees.

“As increasingly illegal operations and bad actors remain the primary issue facing the industry, it would be unwise to reverse changes designed to limit its market participation in exchange for improving other areas of the state program,” he wrote in the bill’s veto note.

Woodward said the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics is working with state counterparts in New York and other states, as well as the federal drug enforcement agency, to clamp down on illegal trafficking.

But he said they encounter illegal activity every day.

He said, “Either we raid a farm or a warehouse and lock it up.” “It really is an ongoing fight against these criminal organizations.”

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