Inside the Rise — and Surprising Crackdown — of the Country's Hottest Weed Market

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In a deep-red state that became the nation’s hottest marijuana market, keeping regulations to a minimum didn’t keep the bad guys out.

LOVE COUNTY, Okla. — Shortly after sunrise on July 22, a dozen or so police officers from across Oklahoma descended on a property about 15 miles north of the Texas border. They moved past the fence with the “No Trespassing” signs and the pink building with the aluminum roof toward a collection of hoop houses. They didn’t know much about the occupants, although the cops strongly suspected they were of Chinese descent.

“We pulled in like gangbusters,” recalled Love County Sheriff Marty Grisham, on a recent weekday afternoon. “The guy who spoke Mandarin got on the loudspeaker, and I don’t know what he was saying, but I'm sure: ‘Come out with your hands up,’ or that sort of thing.”

 
Love County Sheriff Marty Grisham stands outside his office in Marietta, Oklahoma. [Photographs for Politico Magazine by Misty Keasler/Redux Pictures]

Love County Sheriff Marty Grisham’s department conducted a July raid on an illegal cultivation site in the county that netted 2,300 cannabis plants with a street value of roughly $3.5 million.

“We all know that things are going on,” Grisham said of other potential operations in Love County. “There’s probably some human trafficking going on. There’s probably some money laundering going on. There’s a lot of things going on behind the fences of those places.”

 

“We all know that things are going on.”

 LOVE COUNTY SHERIFF MARTY GRISHAM

 

One of the biggest selling points for legalization, and one that proponents made during the referendum three years ago, is that it eliminates the need for an illicit market — and the violence and crime that often comes along with it. Instead, much to the chagrin of state officials, the state’s free-wheeling medical marijuana program has proven to be a magnet for bad actors from across the country. And it has brought into conflict two long-standing and important strains of the state’s conservative makeup: a laissez-faire attitude toward business regulation and a history of harsh treatment of drug offenders.

“It’s like paradise,” said Lawrence Pasternack, a philosophy professor at Oklahoma State University and marijuana legalization advocate, pointing out that Oklahoma has some of the cheapest land in the country. “Did anybody in our state realize this? … You would have thought that somebody from law enforcement would have said to the state, ‘This is what’s going to happen, everybody. You’re going to have every criminal enterprise in the world coming to Oklahoma to grow.’”

The weakness in the system turned out to be the one significant restriction on obtaining a business license: To qualify, applicants with at least a 75 percent ownership stake have to show that they had lived in Oklahoma for at least the last two years (or five continuous years of the previous 25 years). That proved to be an easy rule for applicants to flout with “ghost” owners.

Recent raids have targeted allegedly illegal marijuana grow operations in Marietta and Gene Autry, Oklahoma. The latter effort resulted in 27,000 seized cannabis plants with a street value of $50 million.
 
Law enforcement officials charge that many of these “ghost” owners conceal international criminal syndicates with roots in China, Mexico — and even Bulgaria. These foreign ties to the ghost owners have not been conclusively established in court, but the scope of the ghost-owner scandal has given Oklahomans plenty to speculate about. According to court records, a single Oklahoma resident — a secretary at a law firm, of all places — is listed as the owner on hundreds of businesses. Almost all of the marijuana from these outlaw operations, say officials, ends up out of state and sold on the illicit market.
 

Oklahoma officials now face a conundrum: how aggressively to crack down on an industry that’s become an unlikely bedrock of the state’s economy. Tax revenues are on pace to exceed $150 million this year and whole sectors of the economy — from real estate to building contractors to advertising agencies — now depend on legal marijuana income. Almost nobody wants to abolish it altogether, but even the staunchest libertarians are calling for more enforcement of the rules to protect legitimate business owners.

“There's always been a spirit of apathy, if you will, from our Department of Health as to how they've rolled this out, and that spirit of apathy has absolutely affected enforcement of the program,” said Chip Paul, a libertarian legalization advocate who played a key role in passing the 2018 medical marijuana referendum. “The word went out on the black market that Oklahoma was a place that you could come set up shop, and they weren't going to come enforce the law, and you could do what you wanted.”

 
But lawyers who represent business owners who have lost their licenses, or are at risk of being shut down, say many of them are simply struggling entrepreneurs who thought they were doing everything right to operate legally. Instead, they received dodgy legal advice from scurrilous law firms seeking to rack up huge profits from Oklahoma’s weed rush. Many of them are immigrants with spotty knowledge of English, these lawyers point out, who were recruited from around the country to stake a marijuana claim in Oklahoma. Read entire story on Politico

 

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