Well before Oregon legalized marijuana, its verdant, wet forests made it an ideal place for growing the drug, which often ended up being funneled out of the state for big money. Now, officials suspect legal cannabis in Oregon and other states is also being smuggled out, and the trafficking is putting America’s multibillion-dollar marijuana industry at risk.
In response, pot-legal states are trying to clamp down on “diversion” even as U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions presses for enforcement of federal laws against cannabis.
Tracking legal cannabis from the fields and greenhouses where it’s grown to the shops where it’s sold under names like Blueberry Kush and Chernobyl is their so far main protective measure.
In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown recently signed into law a requirement that state regulators track from seed to store all marijuana grown for sale in Oregon’s legal market. So far, only recreational marijuana has been comprehensively tracked. Tina Kotek, speaker of the Oregon House, said lawmakers wanted to ensure “we’re protecting the new industry that we’re supporting here.”
“There was a real recognition that things could be changing in D.C.,” she said.
California voters approved using a tracking system run by Lakeland, Florida-based Franwell for its recreational pot market. Sales become legal Jan. 1.
Franwell also tracks marijuana, using bar-code and radio frequency identification labels on packaging and plants, in Colorado, Oregon, Maryland, Alaska and Michigan.
“The tracking system is the most important tool a state has,” said Michael Crabtree, who runs Denver-based Nationwide Compliance Specialists Inc., which helps tax collectors track elusive, cash-heavy industries like the marijuana business.
But the systems aren’t fool-proof. They rely on the users’ honesty, he said.
“We have seen numerous examples of people ‘forgetting’ to tag plants,” Crabtree said. Colorado’s tracking also doesn’t apply to home-grown plants and many noncommercial marijuana caregivers.
In California, implementing a “fully operational, legal market” could take years, said state Sen. Mike McGuire, who represents the “Emerald Triangle” region that’s estimated to produce 60 percent of America’s marijuana. But he’s confident tracking will help.
“In the first 24 months, we’re going to have a good idea who is in the regulated market and who is in black market,” McGuire said.
Oregon was the first state to decriminalize personal possession, in 1973. It legalized medical marijuana in 1998, and recreational use in 2014.
Before that, Anthony Taylor hid his large cannabis crop from aerial surveillance under a forest canopy east of Portland, and tended it when there was barely enough light to see.
“In those days, marijuana was REALLY illegal,” said Taylor, now a licensed marijuana processor and lobbyist. “If you got caught growing the amounts we were growing, you were going to go to prison for a number of years.”
Taylor believes it’s easier to grow illegally now because authorities lack the resources to sniff out every operation. And growers who sell outside the state can earn thousands of dollars per pound, he said.
Still, it’s hard to say if pot smuggling has gotten worse in Oregon, or how much of the marijuana leaving the state filters out from the legal side.
Chris Gibson, executive director of the federally funded Oregon-Idaho High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, said the distinction matters less than the fact that legal cannabis continues to leave Oregon on planes, trains and automobiles, and through the mail.
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