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Marijuana by mail: Pot users tap post office, FedEx

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is proposing a study to look at the pros and cons of legalizing recreational marijuana in New York. Cuomo’s proposal was part of his state budget address on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018.

Marijuana shipment caught by authorities. (Photo: DEA)

Some of New York’s biggest marijuana busts recently have involved smugglers using the U.S. Postal Service and private delivery firms like FedEx.

One saw $22 million worth of marijuana shipped through FedEx to businesses and homes in the Bronx and New Rochelle. Authorities allege 6,600 pounds of pot passed through the trafficking ring dubbed Operation Green Giant, and 10 people face a bevy of federal charges in the case.

The bust in the fall unfolded after agents caught one of the men with $230,000 at San Francisco International Airport, and FedEx provided records on 330 suspected pot shipments, court records show.

New York Drug Enforcement Administration Special-Agent-in-Charge James Hunt described the typical marijuana smuggling case as a mix of opportunism and new technology.

Some dealers track their deliveries in real time across the country, playing the odds that the product will seep through cracks in a system handling millions of packages each day. Some bundles ship to unsuspecting homes and businesses, where drug runners intercept them outside front doors.

A $100,000 investment in West Coast weed easily turns into $200,000 when sold at East Coast prices.

“That’s a big budget margin for a drug trafficker,” Hunt said, describing a growing underbelly of “weed connoisseurs” in New York demanding high-quality pot from California, British Columbia and parts of the Pacific Northwest called the Emerald Triangle.

FedEx officials wouldn’t discuss the case that seemingly showed how dozens of pot shipments went unnoticed for more than a year.

“We comply with all applicable federal, state and local regulations, and cooperate with law enforcement authorities in their investigations of criminal activity involving our services or network,” said FedEx spokesman Davina Cole.

Postal service and cartels

More recently, another 12 people were accused of using the Postal Service to ship 220 pounds of marijuana from California to Rochester. The alleged smuggling involved about 1,000 packages sent between August 2015 and earlier this year.

The Postal Service Inspection Service, a federal law enforcement agency, didn’t respond to questions about efforts to curb marijuana smuggling through the mail.

The DEA’s Hunt noted that many of the marijuana shipments get through simply due to volume.

“I would be foolish to think we’re getting more than a portion of it,” he said. “They could send multiple packages, and the easier you can smuggle and transport something the more difficult it is for law enforcement.”

The Postal Service and private delivery companies have systems to target marijuana and drug smuggling, Hunt said, but the DEA generally stays focused on catching the big operations.

“We don’t spend our time doing hit or miss; We’re in the business of investigation,” he said.

That means a lot of attention to Mexican cartels, which can turn a few hundred dollars of pot into $2,000-plus stateside. The equation translates to major marijuana profits each year for deadly traffickers like the Sinaloa cartel.

“The Mexican cartels are the Walmarts, and the smaller weed-connoisseurs traffickers are the convenience store,” Hunt said. “Cartels are doing literally billions of dollars in Mexican marijuana even though it is not the same quality as the Emerald Triangle bud.”

Big Apple’s pot appetite

Marijuana smuggling offers a case study in supply and demand, and New York City seems to have the highest appetite for pot in the world despite its unlawful trade.

The Big Apple’s marijuana use topped a ranking of global cities in 2017. It consumed about 77 metric tons, or 170,000 pounds, of pot that year, USA Today reported. The next two highest cities were Karachi, Pakistan, and New Delhi, India, at 42 and 38 tons consumed, respectively.

Two other U.S. cities cracked the top 10 list with Los Angeles at No. 4 (36 tons) and Chicago at No. 8 (25 tons).

“The biggest thing for marijuana is that it’s so widely abused… It’s so pervasive there are a lot of people who hold legitimate jobs and go to work and even have families who smoke marijuana,” Hunt said,

He then contrasted marijuana users with users of drugs like heroin and cocaine.

“A lot of marijuana users are not the criminal element…You don’t find the same people like an opiate addict or a crack addict doing stick-ups and robbing people at gunpoint or breaking into houses to buy drugs,” he said.

Public-safety risks exist in the marijuana trade, however, at the crossroads of money and gangs. The recent arrests in the Bronx and New Rochelle, for instance, involved firearms, court records show.

“Gangs protect their turf, and the gang’s mission is to protect itself from the other gangs and that’s where the weaponry comes in,” Hunt said.

Marijuana smuggling turns to mail, FedEx to feed demand in New York

Drug traffickers’ favorite way to move fentanyl is FedEx and USPS

A California court charged nearly four dozen people last week for violating US drug and money laundering laws as part of a multi-state methamphetamine distribution ring. The drug traffickers, however, didn’t use any sophisticated techniques to get the drugs over the border. They simply mailed them through FedEx and the US Postal Service.

It’s a strategy that over the last few years has become increasingly popular. It has been an especially effective method for bringing into the United States powerful synthetic opioids and the precursor chemicals used to make them.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, a kilo of fentanyl that wholesales for about $80,000 can generate roughly $1.6 million on the street, making it approximately 20 times more profitable than heroin. Border officials say the fentanyl seized by officers from international mail and overnight packages is typically more than 90% pure. The purity level of fentanyl seized at land border crossings, by comparison, is generally less than 10% pure. Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin, and because a little goes a long way, shipments of the drug are usually made in small quantities, making them difficult to spot.

“The vast majority of illegal fentanyl is purchased online from labs in China and then shipped to the United States through the mail,” Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, said at a 2018 congressional hearing. He described posing as a buyer and asking the sellers how the drugs would be delivered. They told him they often used private express carriers like FedEx, DHL, or UPS, but especially liked the Postal Service “because the chances of the drugs getting seized were so insignificant that delivery was essentially guaranteed.”

The severely overextended US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the main federal agency tasked with intercepting contraband entering the country, is struggling to keep up with the sheer volume of packages. The agency, in fact, needs to more than double the number of inspectors it has in mail sorting facilities to fulfill its mission, according to congressional testimony by the head of the union that represents CBP officers.

Express shipments have increased by nearly 50%, and international mail shipments have gone up more than 200% over the past five years. Yet at the FedEx hub in Memphis, which processed 86 million shipments last year, there are only 15 CBP officers working in the main overnight “sort” shift, per figures cited by CBP union chief Anthony Reardon, who said the facility would need at least 60 additional CBP officers posted there to “ensure successful interdiction” of these synthetic chemicals.

When it comes to CBP presence, US Postal Service and commercial package facilities are “even more short-staffed than the ports of entry,” Reardon told Quartz.

While there are tools that provide CBP with some advance warning about suspicious shipments coming from target countries, the “sheer logistical nature of trying to pick out which packages contain opioids makes it much more challenging,” an agency official admitted last year. “It’s unlike anything we’ve encountered.”

That CBP finds itself shorthanded at package sorting facilities is not surprising to James Phelps, a criminal justice professor with a special focus on border enforcement. He says CBP suffers from a lack of policy continuity under changing administrations, which means the agency’s focus is always shifting.

“The staffing at UPS and FedEx international facilities is a recent change and it wasn’t planned for by headquarters and political administrations,” Phelps told Quartz. “Sort of an ‘additional duties as assigned’ type of obligation.”

Unlike packages sent via private shippers, searching anything sent through the US mail requires a warrant. The Postal Service, which processes 14 million parcels each day, is also obligated by law to deliver all international parcels. Private companies, meanwhile, are allowed to turn suspicious shipments away.

Finding drugs online through a simple Google search is easy. Picking them out among the tsunami of mail coming into the country is a herculean task.

“Your privacy is of the upmost importance to us, we guarantee complete discretion,” one overseas seller assures prospective customers. “We provide special undetectable anti X-Ray wrapping. That way, the only person getting excited about your delivery, is you.”

Dennis Franks, an ex-FBI agent who supervised a squad that investigated transnational drug cartels, said that stopping the flow of drugs coming through the mail is like “putting your finger in a dike, but there’s just not enough fingers to put in all the holes.”

Further, the organizations trafficking drugs like fentanyl often manage to stay one step ahead of authorities.

“Don’t think for a minute that these cartels don’t have their own ‘intelligence services,’” Franks told Quartz. “Friends, family members working on the inside. So they’re going to know how many agents or officers are assigned to which FedEx facility, when they’re working, and when they’re not.”

However, as Sen. Tom Carper, the ranking member on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, told his colleagues at a hearing last year, enforcement is only one aspect of a much larger issue.

“[I]f we only focus on chasing drug shipments after they’ve entered our mail system, we’ll only address the symptoms of this problem,” said Carper, a Delaware Democrat who served as a US congressman for 18 years before being elected to the Senate in 2001. “We also need to focus on the root causes. To truly do that, we must address our country’s considerable demand for drugs.”

CBP did not respond to a request for comment.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized which mail carriers drug traffickers prefer. While they all use private carriers, they said the US Postal Service is the most reliable means of successfully sending drugs into the United States.

Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin, and because a little goes a long way, shipments of the drug are usually made in small quantities, making them difficult to spot.