Post-Legalization, Marijuana Smuggling Explodes at LAX

Marijuana plants are grown at Essence Vegas' 54,000-square-foot marijuana cultivation facility on July 6, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. On July 1, Nevada joined seven other states allowing recreational marijuana use and became the first of four states that voted to legalize recreational sales in November's election to allow dispensaries to sell cannabis for recreational use to anyone over 21. Since July 1, sales of cannabis products in the state have generated more than USD 1 million in tax revenue. / Getty Images
Getty Images

Drug trafficking arrests at Los Angeles International Airport have risen 166 percent in the year since California legalized marijuana state-wide.

In 2018, LAX police made 101 trafficking arrests, the Los Angeles Times reports. This represents a substantial increase over the 38 arrests in 2017 and 20 in 2016, according to police records obtained by the LAT.

"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 lawyer defending a would-be trafficker profiled in the LAT‘s reporting.

Comporting with state law, it is legal for individuals to possess up to 28.5 grams of marijuana or 8 grams of concentrated marijuana at the airport. But California prohibits selling marijuana out of state, as the drug remains federally illegal, with the skies the jurisdiction of the federal government.

In spite of this, police are seeing more and more bags containing large quantities of marijuana, often disguised with tinfoil or wax paper. One officer told the Times that they have routinely seen 50-pound quantities stowed in carry-on luggage.

This upswing in seizures, and therefore in marijuana trafficking, is reflective of the practice of purchasing legal marijuana in California and then selling it in other states at a profit. According to the LAT, most marijuana is exported by car or truck; in 2018, the California Highway Patrol seized eight tons of leaves, compared to two tons in 2017.

The reason for this exportation is simple. Far more marijuana is grown in California than residents of the state themselves consume—five times more, according to one estimate. A 2017 paper cited by the LAT estimates that 80 percent of pot is shipped out of state, and therefore never taxed or regulated.

Instead, the drugs spread across the country, including to the many states where cannabis remains illegal. Arrest reports reviewed by the LAT show trafficking suspects routinely telling police that they came to California "to purchase better and cheaper cannabis products to sell for a profit back home."

The result is a de facto semi-legalization throughout the United States—without the consent of the state legislatures or citizens who would otherwise be responsible for such a decision.

"I don't think we're surprised by the numbers. These are things we foresaw and we've warned folks about," DEA Agent Kyle Mori told the LAT. "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."