The White House has delivered an annual drug enforcement report to Congress that highlights a number of concerns from regional police partners about state-legal marijuana legalization—including what they believe are the implications for drug trafficking, environmental issues related to illicit grows and demand for high-potency THC products.
Advocates and experts have been critical of the past reports from the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Program (HIDTA), which are not peer-reviewed and are facilitated through the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). They argue that the information is biased, given ONDCP’s statutory mandate to oppose efforts to legalize Schedule I drugs like marijuana.
While the key cannabis sections of the new 2022 report comprise a compilation of summaries from regional cohorts and are not a direct reflection of where ONDCP or the administration falls on the issue, the document doesn’t seek to push back on any specific narratives. It’s also being released a couple of months after President Joe Biden issued a mass cannabis pardon and directed an administrative view into marijuana’s federal scheduling status.
Still, it compiles a long list of law enforcement complaints about cannabis legalization.
The Northern California HIDTA, for example said in the report that illicit cannabis “remains readily available” in the region despite the state’s legalization law” and that “consequently marijuana use remains extremely high and prices remain stable.”
The California officials cited by the White House argue that state-level marijuana legalization “has likely invited more criminality connected to the production and transportation of the drug, especially by [drug trafficking organizations] and organized criminal groups” and that criminal groups “have created or partnered with ostensibly legal businesses to conduct illicit production and trafficking” in the state’s “highly accessible and lucrative cash-sales commodity.”
They also claim that violent incidents and “weed rips” in which products are stolen “have become more common since legalization,” citing further concerns about human trafficking and smuggling related to the cannabis trade.
Illegal growing on public lands like state and national parks “continues to pose a serious environmental threat, polluting and diverting water sources, and poisoning wildlife,” the section of the report says, adding that “THC extraction labs are a significant public safety hazard” with the propensity for explosions. There are now “many large labs selling manufactured products to legitimate storefronts,” it says.
Separately, the North Central HIDTA, which covers parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin, said that “demand for higher-potency marijuana and marijuana-related products has remained high over the past several years,” claiming that illegal trafficking groups “source the majority of marijuana and THC products from Colorado and West Coast states that have legalized” cannabis for recreational and medical use.
“There is continued concern over the relationship between marijuana trafficking and distribution and firearms and violent crime associated with these activities,” the regional outfit said. “In addition, the demand for and use of high-potency edibles, oils, and vaping products has remained high, creating a serious health risk to the user community.”
Meanwhile, the Ohio-based division of HIDTA had additional negative comments to make about the implications of state-level reform, arguing that the state’s medical cannabis program “has led to an even greater amount of marijuana usage” and that marijuana “remains the number one recreational drug used in the” region.
But it also said that other states with broader recreational legalization are source points for cannabis that’s being consumed in the Ohio area.
“Nearly all of the respondents to the 2020 Ohio HIDTA Drug Threat Survey reported the majority of marijuana consumed in their area was coming from the Western Region of the United States. It is not uncommon to see bulk shipments of high-grade marijuana products being brought into Ohio from states that have legalized marijuana such as California, Colorado, and Washington.”
Cannabis vaping “has become one of the most common forms of illegal use of marijuana,” it said, expressing concern that such vaping products contain exceptionally high concentrations of THC. It added: “Edibles are becoming more popular with the legalization of recreational marijuana in Western States and medical marijuana in Ohio.”
The South Florida HIDTA, meanwhile, said that cannabis poses a “material threat” to the region, expressing concern that “the perceived danger of marijuana by the public is diminishing in scope due to the legalization of medical marijuana” in the state.
“In addition, marijuana grow operations and the parcel shipment of commercially packaged marijuana from states where it is legal to Florida, where these activities are prohibited, are vast,” it said.
The Texoma HIDTA, which covers parts of Oklahoma and Texas, similarly cited concerns about drug trafficking organizations that “specialize in distribution of high-grade marijuana obtained from states with legalized forms of marijuana.”
“These controlled substances are every bit as destructive as other ‘hard-core’ drugs and negatively impact the quality of life and safety of communities throughout Texas and Oklahoma,” the report submitted to federal lawmakers by the White House says.
Advocates have consistently pushed back on regional HIDTA reports in recent years, and the new 2022 release is no exception.
“The primary reason large-scale illicit cannabis cultivation persists is prohibition, not legalization,” Toi Hutchinson, president and CEO of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), told Marijuana Moment.
“We don’t see illegal production of tobacco and alcohol because both are legal in every state and under federal law,” she said. “Federal prohibition drives up the costs of state-legal cannabis products in a myriad of ways—including by preventing tax deductions for business expenses—and makes it harder to compete with unregulated sales.”
“Meanwhile, 100 percent of adult-use sales in prohibition states, counties, and cities are supplied by the underground market—with all the environmental degradation, violence, and exploitation of labor that sometimes entails,” Hutchinson said.
Again, the new report isn’t necessarily indicative of how the White House views the state-level legalization movement. Biden has said that he supports letting states set their own policies, regardless of his own ongoing opposition to adult-use legalization, and his recent scheduling review and pardons directives have earned him applause from many advocates, even if they still want the administration to do more.
ONDCP Director Rahul Gupta, for his part, has touted the president’s “historic” recent moves. And he’s emphasized that there are “clearly” medical benefits of cannabis—which he says shouldn’t be ignored because of separate concerns about youth use.
Meanwhile, as the administration works to conduct the review into the marijuana’s federal scheduling, a bipartisan coalition of congressional lawmakers recently asked the president to officially get on board with outright legalization.
U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra recently tweeted a link to a Marijuana Moment article that discusses the president’s administrative cannabis scheduling directive.
“We’re going to take a look at what science tells us and what the evidence tells us,” Becerra, who has a considerable record supporting cannabis reform as a congressman and as California’s attorney general, said at the recent overdose prevention event. “That will guide what we do—and we hope that will guide what the federal government does.”
Following the president’s cannabis pardons and scheduling announcement, the secretary said that the department would “work as quickly as we can” to carry out the scientific review. And he’s already discussed the issue with the head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to that end.
Like HHS, DOJ has similarly committed to quickly carrying out the separate scheduling review the president directed, which could result in a recommendation to place cannabis in a lower schedule or remove it altogether, effectively legalizing the plant under federal law.
Separately, Biden recently cheered a move by Oregon’s governor to grant tens of thousands of marijuana pardons in November, which followed his own federal clemency action. And he says other states should “follow Oregon’s example.”
The president also officially signed a marijuana research bill into law last month, making history by enacting the first piece of standalone federal cannabis reform legislation in U.S. history.
A series of polls have shown that Americans strongly support the president’s pardon action, and they also don’t think that marijuana should be federally classified as a Schedule I drug.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.