The Los Angeles Times recently obtained arrest records from Los Angeles International Airport which that shows more than a year after recreational marijuana was legalized in California, marijuana trafficking arrests have surged 166 percent at the airport.
California has a marijuana glut, and the quickest way to parts of the country with much higher demand is often by air. Cannabis traffickers without a prior drug or violent offense will only receive a misdemeanor charge. So, naturally, more smugglers with a lot of cannabis on their hands (knowing they’ll be lightly punished if caught while the plane is still in California) are stuffing suitcases full of it and hopping on a plane.
These circumstances are leading to a lot more marijuana going through LAX, the world’s fourth-busiest airport.
“This is normal procedure for these guys, and I would say 29 out of 30 times they make it through without a problem,” says attorney, Bill Kroger Jr., an experienced criminal defense lawyer representing smugglers.
A particularly daring smuggler named Michael Vechell casually sidled up to a fellow passenger while boarding a flight to Philidelphia with his dog Odie and blatantly asked if she wanted to join his “drug smuggling ring.” After being rebuffed and confronted by police he tried to play it off as just a joke. But it was no joke. He had packed 70 pounds of marijuana in his checked luggage, stuffed into three vacuum-sealed bundles that were labeled “T-shirts,” “cold weather,” and sexy pants.” Vechell is a client of Mr. Kroger’s.
Another man who was arrested carrying three pounds of marijuana said he had stocked up because prices in California were surprisingly low compared to the stuff back home.
Authorities in Oakland and Sacramento are seeing the same thing at their airports. “We intercept large quantities of marijuana regularly,” said Sgt. Ray Kelly of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, which has jurisdiction over Oakland International Airport. “We find it in about 50-pound quantities … the carry-on rate for luggage. I would imagine we’re only intercepting some of it, not all of it.”
In 2016, LAX police made 20 arrests for marijuana trafficking, and they made 38 in 2017, but after legalization in 2018, the number of arrests shot up to 101. However, that’s only a small percentage of the total number of times marijuana has been discovered in a passenger’s luggage.
They also encounter many passengers carrying small amounts of it for personal use, in their pockets or in a carry-on. In 2016, there were 282 reports of marijuana discovered in bags, 400 reports in 2017, and 503 reports in 2018. That rise may be more gradual because medical marijuana, for personal consumption, has been legal in California since 1996. The vast majority of these people are let through.
“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.”
“I think we anticipated it,” said Los Angeles World Airports police spokesman Rob Pedregon. “If you just look at the sheer numbers for us — 87 million passengers a year … I wouldn’t be surprised if in a couple months we do what the other airports do in a year.”
The exporting of marijuana to other states is illegal in California. Although recreational and medical marijuana is legal in the state, this is meant to avoid conflicts with Federal law, where it remains illegal, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which is charged with enforcing Federal drug laws.
However, much of California’s marijuana crop is already illicitly shipped out of state. One 2017 paper, written by researchers from the University of California Agricultural Issues Center, estimated that up to 80 percent of the California crop was exported, and thus never taxed or regulated by California.
“Projections from all sources indicate that illegal cannabis will remain significant,” the study said, “given that it is a market with long-established producers and consumers.” Most of it goes by car or truck, through California’s long and permeable border, although more is also going by air. Major destinations include Chicago, Atlanta, Indianapolis, and Dallas.
Most people discovered carrying small amounts of marijuana get through LAX just fine. Although trafficking is illegal, carrying a small amount of it on a flight is perfectly legal in California. “Although federally it’s still illegal and they would be in violation of federal laws, we as airport police cannot enforce federal laws,” Pedregon said. “As long as it’s a usable, personal quantity under an ounce, they’re free to go.”
The process of getting a small amount of pot through LAX is kind of like a ballet dance, with different agencies having jurisdiction over different parts of the process.
When marijuana is discovered in a passenger’s luggage by TSA agents, who are under Federal jurisdiction, they have to call the police, who are under state jurisdiction and can’t do a thing. And if it’s obviously for personal use, it’s usually fine, too. A UCLA athlete who was discovered with a pipe and a few more grams than legally allowed was let off with a warning.
Despite all of this, police say marijuana remains a low priority, and they’re not particularly concerned about the recent increase in incidences. Not even the DEA is that worried. “Heroin trafficking,” Kyle Mori, of the Los Angeles DEA office, said, “and the diversion of chemicals and pharmaceuticals into the hands of gang members and violent criminals — those are certainly our priority.”