When recreational marijuana became legal in Colorado in 2014, the government’s goal was to regulate and tax a drug that was already widely consumed, as well as cutting off dealers and traffickers.
According to the state authorities, however, legalization has had the opposite result. Even though there are more than 500 legal marijuana outlets on the territory, the black market is on a roll.
This illegal market would have been reinforced by criminal organizations that grow cannabis in Colorado to export it under the mantle in states where the drug is still illegal, and where it can be sold for a much larger profit.
The domestic black market is not gone either, as some marijuana users are put off by higher legal prices and remain loyal to their long-time reseller.
According to investigators, black trading has grown because state laws on marijuana cultivation were too generous in the first place and difficult to enforce.
As Canada prepares to legalize cannabis , CBC News has been talking to people who are closely related to marijuana in Colorado, to get their perspective on the resurgence of the black market.
Investigators from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) are focusing on the largest drug trafficking networks in the United States.
Paul Roach, a DEA supervisor, says his team spends about 15% of their time on marijuana smuggling, about three times longer than before legalization. “Colorado has become the cannabis capital of the United States,” he says.
“You can see groups of traffickers moving in here, opening up shop in the state and sending the drugs to their home states, where they can sell it for big profits.”
Cannabis grown at altitude in Colorado is sold in the black in dozens of states. Criminal organizations, including groups linked to the Mexican and Cuban cartels, grow marijuana in rented houses, warehouses and even on woodlands owned by the federal government.
In some cases, bandits operate in broad daylight and put their illegal culture on legitimate business.
“[The criminals] usually go where they can make money; if they see an opportunity in Canada to increase their profit margins by exploiting Canadian laws, then I expect them to do so, “says Roach.
Jason Mikesell is Sheriff of Teller, Colorado, a rural county nestled at the bottom of the Rocky Mountains.
This hauntingly scenic area, home to 24,000 people, attracts young families and retirees, but Mr. Mikesell says criminal organizations are also moving in to export cannabis to the black market.
“We would never have thought of having this kind of problem with us,” says the policeman.
For him, Colorado is a test area for legal cannabis in the United States. He believes that local laws have made it difficult for the authorities to grow their own marijuana.
Immediately after legalization, state residents could grow six plants and regroup to form cooperatives. As for the consumers of medicinal marijuana, they were entitled to 99 plants and could even appoint a third person to take care of this crop.
More restrictive laws came into effect at the beginning of the year, limiting cannabis cultivation to a maximum of 12 plants for a single residence. The sheriff’s staff were able to intervene against the traffickers.
To date, the county police have made eight raids, seizing the equivalent of 3.5 million US dollars in cannabis. During these operations, the agents arrested more than 20 cartel members with ties to Cuba and Miami.
“We have been made aware that there are 60 to 70 houses [serving as illegal greenhouses] where we have not gone yet,” Sheriff Roach added.
Elsewhere in the state, similar denunciations are multiplying.
A drug salesman who has agreed to speak with CBC News on condition of anonymity says he spends most of his days driving his car, driving through the streets of Denver, the capital.
A “sent-good” may be hanging on the rearview mirror, impossible to conceal the smell of cannabis. On his lap, a plastic bag contains marijuana pots.
“For a good day, I earn $400 to $500,” he says.
This father of two is advertising online to sell his illegal goods.
According to him, the legalization has not had a significant impact on his “business”, since it serves customers who do not want to be seen in a point of sale.
His clients include truck drivers, who are banned from smoking because of federal transportation laws.
“It’s a job that pays, but that involves risks,” says the reseller, referring to buyers who, sitting in the passenger seat of his vehicle, pointed him a gun on the temple.
When 42-year-old Larisa Bolivar wants to get her hands on marijuana, she goes to one of Denver’s favorite outlets, where she can buy cannabis to smoke or foods cooked with the drug.
President of the Colorado branch of the Cannabis Consumers Coalition, she is both a long-time consumer and activist. For the past two years, she has been conducting online scans with cannabis smokers to find out where they get their supplies.
To do this, it went through the Facebook page of the coalition and its 17,000 members, and contacted consumers directly after obtaining a list of business customers working in the industry.
Preliminary results indicate that the legal market still represents the lowest proportion of cannabis purchases in the state.
Loyalty to sellers and the question of accessibility would weigh in the balance: in Colorado, you must be 21 years old and agree to present proof of identity to buy cannabis. Not all municipalities have a point of sale.
Taxes and fees related to cannabis allowed the state to rake in more than 250 million US dollars last year.
According to Ms. Bolivar, these additional costs are the main factor fueling the attractiveness of the black market.
“If I can save a few dollars, the choice is simple,” she says.