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Pot smuggling arrests at LAX have surged 166% since marijuana legalization

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Michael Vechell had already drawn the attention of an airline worker and two passengers at Los Angeles International Airport by the time he was confronted by police.

Waiting to board his Philadelphia-bound flight with his dog Odie, Vechell had sparked concern when he sidled up to another passenger and asked if she wanted to join his “drug smuggling ring,” authorities say.

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Although Vechell told LAX police it was just a misunderstanding, officers demanded to see his checked baggage. Inside, they found nearly 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 surged 166% at LAX, according to arrest records obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

Emboldened by legalization and facing only light punishment if captured, more and more smugglers are taking 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 in the illegal export of marijuana, they say.

“This is normal procedure for these guys, and I would say 29 out of 30 times they make it through without a problem,” said Bill Kroger Jr., a 20-year criminal defense lawyer who specializes in marijuana cases and who represented Vechell.

Authorities at LAX say they are encountering more and more airline passengers who are carrying small amounts of pot for personal use, but the number of checked bags stuffed entirely full of marijuana has soared as well. Police in Oakland and Sacramento say they are seeing the same thing.

“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.”

The sudden increase in airport smuggling is largely the result of legalization and a saturated market. California grows far more marijuana than its residents consume — up to five times more by some accounts — and cannabis users in other states will pay a much higher price.

“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.”

In 2018 — the state’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, according to 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 medical and recreational use of cannabis is legal in California, it remains illegal in the eyes of the federal government, which considers it a Schedule 1 drug on par with heroin, LSD and ecstasy.

Hoping to avoid a confrontation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the California Bureau of Cannabis Control has prohibited the export of marijuana to other states.

Experts, however, say prohibition will do little to stop California from illegally exporting the bulk of its marijuana crop.

In a 2017 paper on the economic effects of marijuana’s legalization, researchers for the University of California Agricultural Issues Center estimate that up to 80% of the pot grown in California is shipped out of state — never to be taxed or regulated here.

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“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.”

As a result of this ongoing black market — and other factors — the state has been disappointed by the amount of tax revenue that legal pot generates.

The bulk of illegally exported pot leaves the state by car or truck. In 2018, the California Highway Patrol seized more than 8 tons of marijuana in 63 incidents. The year before that, officers seized just over 2 tons in 76 stops. “The incidents are fewer,” said CHP Capt. Jason Daughrity, “but the weight is heavier.”

Nevertheless, the number of traffickers using commercial airlines appears to be growing. Popular flight destinations include Chicago, Atlanta, Indianapolis and Dallas, according to LAX arrest records.

Kroger said the consequences for getting stopped at a California airport with two checked bags of marijuana were relatively minor: a misdemeanor charge for someone without a history of drug or violent offenses.

In the eyes of the federal government, the surge in smuggling is a clear case of “I told you so.”

“I don’t think we’re surprised by the numbers. These are things we foresaw and we’ve warned folks about,” said Kyle Mori of the DEA’s Los Angeles office. “When states legalize it, you give folks a false sense of security that they can come through TSA checkpoints…. They believe what they’re doing is legal.”

Last year at LAX, there were 503 reports of marijuana discovered in bags, and only one-fifth of them involved trafficking suspects. In comparison, there were 400 reports of marijuana in 2017 and 282 reports in 2016.

Much of the marijuana discovered is a result of passengers being confused over state and federal jurisdictions, and where those lines are drawn. In fact, people are allowed to possess up to 28.5 grams of marijuana or 8 grams of concentrated marijuana at LAX, according to the airport’s website.

“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.”

Hundreds of passengers now regularly pack personal amounts of marijuana, cannabis oil or edibles in their carry-on or checked baggage assuming it’s legal to fly with, forgetting that the federal government has dominion over the skies.

From Nov. 16 to Nov. 26 — when an estimated 2.52 million holiday season passengers usually pass through LAX — Transportation Security Administration agents called police 27 times after discovering marijuana in carry-on or checked luggage, though only six arrests were made.

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Among those stopped was a UCLA student-athlete on scholarship who was carrying 34 grams of marijuana — nearly 6 grams more than the state permits one person to carry — and a pipe in her purse. The woman “spontaneously said that the marijuana was hers and she was sorry for having it.” Officers let her off with a warning, and she continued on her flight without the marijuana.

Traffickers, however, will put more effort into concealing large amounts of cannabis and its derivatives, either by wrapping the contraband in things like wax paper, tinfoil or gift wrapping or disguising their products as candy or other foods.

Such was the case Nov. 14 when TSA employees scanning checked luggage opened five suitcases that had failed to produce a scanned image on their monitors.

The luggage belonged to two men on a Newark-bound flight and contained more than 100 pounds of cannabis products, according to arrest reports.

In December, police arrested a man carrying 3 pounds of edibles and cannabis oil in his luggage. The suspect said he was struck by how low the prices were at the Inglewood dispensary he was visiting compared with prices he found at home in Hagerstown, Md.

In numerous arrest reports reviewed by the Los Angeles Times, trafficking suspects told police they flew to California to purchase better and cheaper cannabis products to sell for a profit back home.

When some states legalize marijuana but others do not, suppliers will move in to fill that void even if it’s through black market channels, said California Cannabis Industry Assn. spokesman Josh Drayton. A pound of marijuana flower that costs $600 to $800 in California can be resold for $4,000 in the Midwest, he said.

Despite the increase in commercial aviation trafficking incidents, marijuana remains a low enforcement priority, police say. The DEA’s stance is that the drug has no medical benefit and that legalizing it increases DUI-related arrests, crashes and helps fund Mexican cartels. But beyond that, their immediate focus is elsewhere.

“Heroin trafficking,” Mori said, “and the diversion of chemicals and pharmaceuticals into the hands of gang members and violent criminals — those are certainly our priority.”

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