The syndicate’s podcast host displays on Colorado marijuana legalization and the black market
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When I turned a corner on Mount Herman Road, a dirt road into the woods above Monument, I saw evidence of what I was looking for. Even so, I wanted to be absolutely sure I was in the right place, so I decided to compare Notes to an audio recording I had received. I hit the play button on my phone and a voice came to life over the car’s speakers.
“It was like fifty yards of trees in front of this mountain, all of which had just been cut,” said the voice. “There were thousands of cases everywhere. It was like a place where people wanted to shoot their guns. “
The forest around me certainly fit the description. It looked like a war zone. Although the US Forest Service banned recreational shooting along this road in 2014, there were still areas full of pockmarked trees – just as described in the record – when I drove on it in October 2019.
But my mission in the forest wasn’t just to find old cartridge cases. I looked for a bag of cash. Drug money, to be precise.
I had all sorts of similar mishaps towards the end of last year. This trip to the Pike National Forest was just part of a comprehensive investigation I had launched into a marijuana smuggling group operating in Colorado from 2010 to 2014. I first heard about the group when I was working as a Westword employee in 2015. Colorado authorities made a big deal of the prosecution of the black market venture and bravely dubbed its dismantling “Operation Golden Go-fer” – a reference to the sports team University of Minnesota, where some members of the group met.
I wanted to know the full story behind the rise and fall of the group, but I had to wait years – until mid-2019 – for the state to agree to unseal its investigation files. However, as soon as I had access to the records, I made a commitment to report the story and follow up any leads. Soon I was not only looking for bags of hidden money, but flying across the country – and even jumping out of airplanes – to follow a wild story.
The result is The Syndicate, an eight-episode podcast series that examines an ambitious smuggling operation and the underbelly of the Colorado cannabis industry. After the final episode fell on September 22nd, the whole show became binge-capable with all the elements of a Hollywood caper: skydiving drug mules, stealing pharmacies, a lab explosion, informers, and, yes, stories of drug money getting in Tucked away in the city were the Rockies.
But window dressing and lofty antics aside, the group’s biggest accomplishment didn’t fly up to 900 pounds of pot out of state (and over the heads of regulators) every smuggling run. it was hiding in Colorado’s regulated cannabis industry. It did so by posing as a legitimate breeder and using one of Colorado’s oldest medical marijuana programs: the Nursing Initiative (where “caregivers” grow small amounts of medicinal weeds for individual patients).
A former shooting range in the Pike National Forest.
By defrauding regulators in Colorado, a state with legal weed, and smuggling marijuana into Minnesota, where weed was illegal, the group made millions of dollars selling their product on the black market. The program raises some serious questions about cannabis regulation, and my research has taught me some important things about cannabis legalization and the ongoing black market. Here are the big two:
• The interstate marijuana trade will continue as long as this country maintains a patchwork of state weed laws. If we continue to have some states where weed is legal and others where it is illegal, there will always be an incentive to smuggle cannabis out of legal markets and sell it for profit on another state’s black market. Therefore, national legalization – and the removal of cannabis from a Schedule 1 classification – is a critical step in eliminating the interstate pot trade.
• But even if marijuana is legalized at the federal level, the black market will not magically disappear overnight – despite proposals from some movements to legalize it. Case in point: Canada. Although Canada legalized weeds nationwide in 2018, the country still has a robust black market. In August 2019 – a year after legalization – the Canadian government found that illicit sales accounted for over 70 percent of the total weed market.
That said, if weeds are legalized at the federal level, there are several ways to curb the black market and gradually break into illegal marijuana sales:
• Don’t tax weeds so much that people are unwilling to pay the cost of buying them legally. Pot consumers are like any other customer: they want a deal. And we’ve already seen that when municipalities tax cannabis too aggressively, as some in California have done, consumers may choose to buy weed illegally from their street vendor instead of paying the legal weed premium at pharmacies. In other words, the price of legal weeds must stay competitive with street prices or the black market will survive.
• People need access to legal weeds. If there are no pharmacies, where do you buy cannabis other than the black market? This is a problem we saw in Quebec, where the slow adoption of pharmacy licenses by Canadians has stifled the legal market. It happened in Colorado too: while El Paso County is Colorado Springs, it only has two recreational pot stores – both in Manitou Springs. Where do you think all these college students in the springs get their weed from? Some could safely drive out of El Paso County. But others will not bother to do things according to the book; You will contact your corner dealer.
Just as Colorado was the first state to sell recreational cannabis, it can lead the way in curbing the black market for cannabis. In some parts of the state, abundant supply, easy access, and old-fashioned capitalist competition in the regulated industry have brought prices down to the point where legal weeds compete with black market weeds. (There are 167 recreational pharmacies in Denver alone.) Colorado would also do well to strengthen regulatory programs like Seed to Sale, which make it harder to grow illegal marijuana right under the nose of state regulators.
All of this will help shrink the cannabis underground economy year after year, just as piracy and moonshine gradually disappeared as a significant threat to legal alcohol after the ban was lifted. And not only do we need to remove profit incentives for working in the shade, but we also need to overcome some basic human nature.
During my treasure hunt when I was driving on a ridge in the Pike National Forest, I found another former shooting range. There were half-sawn trees, many used shells. And a cliff that looked exactly like the place where a source told me he saw someone toss a bag of cash with a GPS tracking device on it.
As I approached the cliff on foot, the producer who accompanied me remarked, “You feel like you felt somehow untouchable… the shotguns, the drugs, the money. It kind of plays into those stereotypes. “
I think she’s right. We still have a lot of history and cultural stereotypes to undo if we are ever to completely transfer cannabis into the sunshine. But little by little, evidence of his past disappears.
As I peered over the cliff, I saw that the ground below was already covered in snow. I’d have to come back to make sure there aren’t any pockets of cash down there yet.
The syndicate is available on all podcast platforms including Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, and Google. For more information about the show, visit thesyndicatepodcast.com.
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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former employee of Westword. Before moving to Mile High City, he cycled around Eurasia for two years. During this time he wrote feature articles for VICE, NPR, Forbes and The Atlantic. Read more about Chris’ feature work and view his portfolio here.