Marijuana smuggling arrests at LAX have become increasingly popular. Michael Vechell had already drawn the attention of an airline worker and two passengers in Los Angeles International Airport by the time he had been confronted by authorities.
Waiting to board his Philadelphia-bound plane together with his dog Odie, Vechell had sparked concern when he sidled up to another passenger and asked if she wished to join his “drug smuggling ring,” authorities say.
Although Vechell told LAX authorities it was a misunderstanding, officers demanded to see his checked bags. Inside, they found almost 70 pounds of vacuum-sealed marijuana bundled into packages labeled “T-shirts,” “cold weather” and “sexy pants”
More than a year after California legalized the recreational use of cannabis, trafficking arrests like Vechell’s have soared 166% at LAX, according to arrest documents acquired from the Los Angeles Times.
Emboldened by legalization and facing only light punishment if caught, more and more smugglers are carrying to the friendly skies in an effort to escape California’s glutted cannabis market, according to authorities, marijuana industry experts and a lawyer who represents accused smugglers. As a result, the world’s fourth-busiest airport is now an expanding hub at the illegal export of marijuana, they say.
“That is normal process for all these guys, and I’d say 29 out of 30 times they make it through with no problem,” explained Bill Kroger Jr., a 20-year criminal defense lawyer who specializes in marijuana cases and that represented Vechell.
Authorities in LAX say they’re encountering more and more airline passengers that are carrying small amounts of marijuana for personal use, but the amount of checked bags stuffed entirely full of marijuana has soared also. Police in Oakland and Sacramento state they are seeing exactly the same thing.
“We intercept massive amounts 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 roughly 50-pound quantities… the carry-on rate for luggage. I’d imagine we are just intercepting some of it, maybe not all of it.”
The abrupt increase in airport smuggling is mainly the result of legalization and a saturated industry. California grows far more marijuana than its residents consume — up to five times more by some accounts — and cannabis consumers in different states will pay a much higher price.
“Since pot’s been legalized in California, there’s no money to be left because everybody got involved in it,” Kroger said. “They’ve got these large 50,000-square-foot [grow] houses, and they’re flooding the marketplace. The money is outside of California.”
In 2018 — the nation’s first year of legalized recreational pot use — LAX police made 101 trafficking arrests, compared with 38 trafficking arrests in 2017 and 20 in 2016, based on Los Angeles Airport Police records.
“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.”
Although the recreational and medical use of cannabis is legal in California, it remains illegal in the opinion of the national government, which believes it a Schedule 1 drug on par with heroin, LSD and ecstasy.
Hoping to prevent a confrontation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the California Bureau of Cannabis Control has prohibited the export of marijuana to several other states.
Experts, however, state prohibition will do little to stop California from exporting the majority of its marijuana harvest.
In a 2017 paper about the financial ramifications of marijuana’s legalization, researchers at the University of California Agricultural Issues Center estimate that around 80% of the marijuana grown in California is sent out of state — to not be taxed or regulated here.
“Projections from all sources indicate that illegal cannabis will remain significant,” the study stated, “given that it is a market with long-established manufacturers and consumers.”
As a consequence of this ongoing black market — and other factors — the state has been disappointed by the quantity of tax earnings that legal pot generates.
The bulk of illegally exported pot leaves the state by car or truck. In 2018, the California Highway Patrol captured more than 8 tons of marijuana in 63 incidents. The year before that, officers captured just over 2 tons in 76 stops. “The events are fewer,” said CHP Capt. Jason Daughrity, “however, the weight is heavier.”
Nevertheless, the number of traffickers using commercial airlines appears to be growing. Popular airport destinations include Chicago, Atlanta, Indianapolis and Dallas, according to LAX arrest documents.
Kroger said the consequences for getting stopped at a California airport using just two checked bags of marijuana were relatively modest: a misdemeanor fee for someone with no history of drug or violent offenses.
In the eyes of the national authorities, the spike in smuggling is a clear case of “I told you so.”
“I don’t think we’re surprised by the amounts. These are things we foresaw and we’ve warned people about,” explained Kyle Mori of the DEA’s Los Angeles office. “When conditions legalize it, you provide folks a false sense of safety that they can come through TSA checkpoints…. They believe what they are doing is legal.”
Last year in LAX, there were 503 reports of marijuana discovered in luggage, and just one-fifth of them involved trafficking suspects. In comparison, there were 400 reports of bud in 2017 and 282 reports in 2016.
A lot of the marijuana discovered is a consequence of passengers being confused over state and national jurisdictions, and where those lines are drawn. In fact, people are allowed to have up to 28.5 grams of marijuana approximately 8 g of concentrated marijuana at LAX, according to the airport website.
“Although it’s still illegal and they would be in violation of national legislation, we as airport authorities cannot enforce federal legislation,” Pedregon said. “As long as it’s a usable, private quantity under an ounce, they’re free to go.”
Hundreds of passengers today regularly pack personal amounts of marijuana, cannabis oil or edibles in their carry-on or checked luggage assuming it is legal to fly with, denying that the federal government has dominion over the skies.
From Nov. 16 to Nov. 26 — when a estimated 2.52 million vacation season passengers normally pass through LAX — Transportation Security Administration representatives called police 27 days after discovering marijuana in carry-on or checked luggage, even though just six arrests were made.
One of those ceased was a UCLA student-athlete on scholarship who had been carrying 34 grams of marijuana — almost 6g more than the state allows one person to take — and a pipe in her bag. The girl “spontaneously said the marijuana was hers and she was sorry for having it.” Officers let her off with a warning, and she continued on her flight with no bud.
Traffickers, though, will put more effort into hiding large amounts of cannabis and its derivatives, by simply wrapping the contraband in matters like wax paper, tinfoil or present wrapping or disguising their goods as candies or other foods.
Such was the case Nov. 14 of TSA employees scanning checked bag opened five suitcases that had failed to make a scanned image in their monitors.
The bag belonged to two guys on a Newark-bound flight and contained over 100 pounds of cannabis products, according to reports.
In December, police arrested a man carrying three lbs of edibles and cannabis oil in his bag. The suspect said he was struck by how low the prices were in the Inglewood dispensary he had been seeing compared with prices he found at home at Hagerstown, Md..
In numerous arrest reports reviewed by the Los Angeles Times, trafficking suspects told authorities they flew to California to purchase cheaper and better cannabis products to sell for a gain back home.
When some states legalize marijuana but others do not, providers will move in to fill that void even if it’s through black market channels, stated California Cannabis Industry Assn. spokesman Josh Drayton. A pound of marijuana flower that costs $600 to $800 at California could be resold for $4,000 in the Midwest, he said.
Regardless of the increase in commercial aviation trafficking events, marijuana stays a low enforcement priority, police state. The DEA’s stance is that the drug has no medical benefit and that legalizing it raises DUI-related arrests, crashes and helps fund Mexican cartels. But beyond that, their immediate attention is elsewhere.
“Heroin trafficking,” Mori said, “and the diversion of substances and pharmaceuticals to the hands of gang members and violent offenders — those are certainly our priority.”
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