In October 2014, SWAT team officers and DEA agents kicked down the doors of 32 people around Denver, all members of a massive marijuana-smuggling ring. For almost five years, the group had fooled regulators overseeing Colorado’s medical marijuana industry by operating seemingly legitimate growhouses, all the while trafficking its harvests out of state using cars — and skydiving planes.
Yep, skydiving planes.
In his new podcast “The Syndicate,” journalist Chris Walker goes beyond some of the case’s flashy details, speaking to both the members of the criminal organization and the law enforcement agents who took them down, and uncovers how the push for legal marijuana in some states actually drives up black market demand nationally.
Walker spoke with Salon about how long he waited to report this story, how the members of “The Syndicate” gamed the medical marijuana system, and what it would take for federal legalization to actually work.
Tell me a little bit about how you became acquainted with the story that’s presented in “The Syndicate.” You were living in Colorado when the major drug bust happened, right?
Right, so in 2015 when this group was busted, or at least a grand jury indictment was handed down, I was working as a staff writer for the second largest newspaper in Denver, which is actually an alternative weekly. This press conference made a splash. I mean, it was the largest pot bust in Colorado since the state had legalized recreational weed in 2012. And it was just shocking the size and scale of this black market operation.
They were using skydiving planes to ship pot out of state. It was a collection of all these college friends and their family members that came from Minnesota to Colorado to hide undercover in the legal market. So they got plenty of attention at the time, there was a big press conference at the Colorado Attorney General’s office, and every outlet in Denver and many around the country, as well, covered this story.
But there were limitations. At that time, there were 32 court cases that came out of this, and the state of Colorado wanted to make sure that it could successfully prosecute each of those cases without additional media coverage marring their legal cases.
So, the state’s stayed tight-lipped about this for about four years, but I knew that I if I could ever get access to some of the operatives who were allegedly involved in this group, as well as get the law enforcement side, it would just be a fascinating insight into how black market groups operate. Moreover, it would answer this main question in my mind, “If Colorado had a seemingly thriving legal market, why would you take risks to set up this massive black market operation?”
Right. I think there’s this misconception that in an era of…