Like modern-day gold rushers, marijuana dealers in Connecticut have found a lucrative enterprise in the West.
Local, state and federal law enforcement officials agree that tons of high quality pot from California is being sold here at a huge markup.
Brian Boyle, regional supervisor for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, said as much as 75 percent of the marijuana sold in Connecticut comes from California.
“There’s a lot of money to be made,” Boyle said, “so the reward is greater than the risk.”
Within the past seven years, less marijuana has been coming across the border from Mexico. Drug cartels have learned that growing their crop illegally in the U.S., particularly in California and other West Coast states — where recreational use is legal, the climate is ideal and law enforcement scrutiny is relatively lax — carries far less risk and the chance for greater profits.
A study by California’s food and agriculture department found that in 2016, state growers produced at least 13.5 million pounds of marijuana, five times more than the 2.5 million pounds Californians consumed. The rest, experts say, was shipped out of state.
California began licensing marijuana farms and sales on Jan. 1, and license holders already have been complaining about black-market pot undercutting their business.
Part of the California-to-Connecticut pot pipeline was exposed recently with a bust in Manchester that netted 70 pounds of premium weed. Police say the pot was worth $300,000, or about $4,300 a pound. After a story about the seizure ran in early February, a Courant reader said the cops’ street value estimate was wildly exaggerated, but Manchester police Sgt. Matthew Pace said, “I can assure you, I get nothing from grossly exaggerating numbers.”
“I have been in proffers with private attorneys and (U.S. district attorneys) where dealers explain in great detail the draw to buying low on the West Coast and selling high in the East Coast,” Pace, the head of the East Central Narcotics Task Force, said. “The demand for marijuana has always been high and the profit margins are astronomical in a cash business.”
Depending on the quality, Pace said, a pound that sells for $700 to $2,000 in California can bring as much as $7,000 here.
Boyle agreed. Grown for “next to nothing” in the Golden State’s immense back country, California marijuana can fetch more than triple the purchase price in Connecticut, he said. An average price here, Boyle said, is $3,500 a pound.
Smaller amounts are sent through the mail, and large shipments typically go by vehicle, law enforcement officials said.
“Any mode of transportation that’s available, these traffickers will utilize,” Connecticut state police Capt. Scott Eckersley, head of the statewide narcotics task force, said.
In one trip to California in July 2017, Kenneth Chaparro, the Manchester man charged in the recent pot seizure, bought 30 pounds from five separate sources, an arrest warrant says. Chaparro, 24, and a woman, whose name officials redacted from the warrant, then used a vacuum-sealing machine to package the pot in one-pound plastic bags, stuffed the bags into a Home Depot moving box and mailed the package through FedEx to a Vernon address, the warrant says.
Chaparro and the woman flew to California five times between October 2017 and January, the woman told police, according to the warrant.
“Each trip to California we purchased and shipped large amounts of marijuana back to Connecticut in the same manner, each package larger than the last,” police quoted the woman as saying.
“During the last trip to California, Kenneth purchased approximately 90-100 pounds of marijuana” and sent it to the Vernon address and to his mother’s home in East Hartford, the warrant says.
Typically, Boyle said, dealers send up to 10 pounds through the mail and use vehicles to transport larger loads. Some Connecticut-based pot dealers mail cash and wait for the return package, he said. People mailing the pot try to mask the scent with dishwashing liquid, laundry detergent, coffee grounds and other substances, he said. U.S. Postal Service and package delivery companies are aware of these methods, authorities say, but they cannot catch every pot-filled bundle, so many get through.
Using vehicles carries its own risks, as police in some states along the cross-country route strictly enforce marijuana laws. In one 48-hour period in early August last year, Texas highway troopers stopped three vehicles from California on the same stretch of I-40 east of Amarillo, seizing $2.5 million worth of marijuana, the Los Angeles Times reported. The loads included 60 pounds valued at $364,000, packed into a Dodge Caravan; 69 pounds worth $418,000 in a minivan; and 300 pounds valued at $1.8 million from another eastbound minivan, the newspaper reported.
Paul Armentano, a Connecticut native and deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws or NORML, said he is “highly dubious” of claims that California is the main source for pot sold in Connecticut. The organization’s mission, in part, is “to move public opinion sufficiently to legalize the responsible use of marijuana by adults,” according to www.norml.org.
“Neither local law enforcement nor the DEA has any realistic sense of the underground marijuana market,” Armentano said.
“From an economic standpoint,” he said, “I simply don’t see the financial incentive for one to purchase marijuana on the other side of the country and invest the time and labor and risk to try and transport that marijuana back across the country and still charge a competitive price.”
No one, including Armentano, questions that California is a major pot producer. In 2016, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies reported seizing 5.3 million marijuana plants throughout the nation. About 70 percent were confiscated in California, the Los Angeles Times reported.
In Connecticut, Boyle, Eckersley and Pace all said opioids are a law enforcement focus now because of the daily carnage from heroin, fentanyl and abuse of prescription drugs such as oxycodone. But the officials also said they will continue to enforce laws against possession and sale of marijuana.
“It is a gateway drug,” Eckersley said, “and we’re going to enforce laws regarding marijuana.”