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The threat associated with marijuana trafficking and abuse is rising, largely the result of a growing demand for high-potency marijuana as well as a concomitant increase in the drug's availability. An increase in domestic cannabis cultivation by DTOs contributes to this threat, particularly the recent expansion of cultivation operations by Mexican, Asian, and Cuban DTOs. Mexican DTOs are expanding their networks by moving some of their operations from western to eastern states and to remote areas where cannabis has not been previously cultivated. Canada-based Asian DTOs and criminal groups are cultivating large quantities of high-potency marijuana in indoor sites in various regions of the country, and they are expanding their networks to control a greater portion of wholesale marijuana distribution. Cuban groups appear to have expanded their operations significantly in 2006 and 2007 from southern Florida to other southeastern states, particularly Georgia and North Carolina.
Marijuana potency reached its highest recorded level in 2006, most likely attributable to improvements in outdoor and indoor cultivation methods. The University of Mississippi Potency Monitoring Project data for 2006 indicate that the average THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol)--the psychoactive chemical in marijuana--level in tested samples of marijuana increased to the highest-ever recorded. Most of the marijuana available in the United States is lower-potency, commercial-grade marijuana produced in Mexico; however, the national average potency of marijuana appears to be increasing because of a rising prevalence in domestic drug markets of high-potency marijuana that is generally produced in Canada and the United States through improved and highly efficient outdoor and indoor cultivation methods. Independent growers--and, increasingly, criminal groups and DTOs--operating in Canada and the United States use advanced equipment and cultivation methods to produce a higher-potency crop, including using cloned starter plants and high-nutrient fertilizers. For example, indoor grow operations recently discovered in the Atlanta area yielded marijuana with a THC content of over 18 percent.
The Number of Cuban-Operated Indoor Grows in Georgia Increased Sharply in Early 2007
Law enforcement reporting and seizure data indicate that the number of indoor cannabis grow sites operating in Georgia has increased sharply and that most seized sites were large, well-organized sites controlled by Cubans. According to the Atlanta HIDTA, over 86 residences in 14 counties in Georgia have been identified since January 2007 as indoor cannabis cultivation sites operated by Cubans. These indoor grow sites typically are large (some sites contain as many as 400 to 700 plants) and employ advanced growing techniques and equipment such as automatically timed grow lights, irrigation systems, carbon dioxide generators and high-nitrogen fertilizers that enable the groups to complete a harvest every 90 to 109 days or three to four crops per year.
Indoor cannabis cultivation is increasing in some areas of the country as growers attempt to avoid outdoor eradication and attain higher profits through production of indoor-grown, high-potency marijuana. Federal, state, and local law enforcement reporting indicates that vigorous outdoor cannabis eradication efforts have caused many marijuana producers, particularly Caucasian groups, to relocate indoors even in leading outdoor grow states such as California and Tennessee. In addition to the reduced risk of detection, indoor cannabis cultivators benefit from higher profits because cultivation is a year-round process with four to six harvests per year and controlled conditions that enable growers to produce high-quality marijuana that commands higher prices in most drug markets. These factors have contributed to a sharp increase in indoor cultivation reported by law enforcement, evidenced by an 85 percent increase nationwide in indoor plant eradication between 2000 and 2006. Moreover, Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program (DCE/SP) data show that the number of indoor sites seized increased 38 percent from 2001 (2,379 sites) to 2006 (3,274).
Table 5. Domestic Cannabis Eradication, Outdoor and Indoor Plant Seizures, 2000-2006
Source: Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program.
Cuban DTOs and criminal groups in the Southeast are expanding indoor grow operations northward to avoid detection and attain better access to drug markets. Cuban DTOs have cultivated high-potency cannabis at indoor grow sites in southeastern states--primarily in southern Florida--for several years; however, Cuban groups appear to have expanded their operations significantly in 2006 and 2007. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) reports that the number of indoor cannabis grows operated by Cuban DTOs in South Florida has increased sharply and is the leading cause of the increase in indoor grow seizures in Florida between 2001 (210) and 2006 (384). During that period, the influence of these Florida-based Cuban DTOs appears to have increased significantly, extending beyond southern Florida to other southeastern states. Intelligence derived from recent law enforcement investigations reveals that cannabis cultivation by Cuban DTOs has advanced from independent Cuban groups operating small grows for relatively small profit, to a seemingly coordinated effort by these groups to operate large-scale, indoor cannabis grow sites across Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. In fact, law enforcement reporting indicates that many--perhaps most--of the Cuban-operated, indoor cannabis cultivation sites in Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina may be linked to a single Florida-based Cuban DTO. The unusually high number of Cuban-operated indoor cannabis grow site seizures in Georgia in early 2007 (see text box) will result in a sharp increase in the annual number of plants eradicated statewide in 2007, compared with previous years when indoor cultivation was relatively limited. For example, cannabis plant seizures will most likely exceed 10,000 plants in Georgia in 2007; according to DCE/SP data, only 1,160 indoor cannabis plants were eradicated in Georgia in 2006.
The involvement of Mexican DTOs in outdoor cannabis cultivation within the United States is expanding to eastern states--an apparent attempt to avoid heightened law enforcement pressure in western states. A number of Mexican DTOs that cultivate cannabis in the United States have relocated some of their operations to states outside of their principal operating areas in California, Washington, and Oregon, seemingly to avoid improved and intensified aerial detection and eradication in those states. This practice--first observed in 1999, but becoming much more prominent since 2005--initially involved relocation from northern California to remote areas of other western states. However, in 2005 Mexican DTOs greatly expanded their cultivation sites in Arizona. In 2005 and 2006, Mexican DTOs further expanded their operations, establishing outdoor cultivation sites east of the Mississippi River in Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, often in remote areas where cannabis had not been previously cultivated. Mexican cannabis growers operating large-scale grows east of the Mississippi River are increasingly being linked by law enforcement officials to Mexican DTOs15 operating in California and Mexico, suggesting a coordinated effort with respect to cannabis cultivation by Mexican DTOs that now spans the United States. Many of these groups maintain direct contact or affiliation with larger DTOs in the United States and Mexico and maintain a level of coordination among operating areas, moving labor and materials to the various sites as needed.
Mexican DTOs have relocated many of their cannabis cultivation operations in Mexico from traditional growing areas to more remote locations in central and northern Mexico, primarily to reduce the risk of eradication and gain more access to U.S. drug markets. According to the CIA Crime and Narcotics Center (CNC), Mexican DTOs have relocated many of their cannabis-growing operations from traditional growing areas in the states of Guerrero, Nayarit, and Michoac?n to remote mountain areas of Durango, Sinaloa, and Sonora in central and northern Mexico since the 1990s. CNC reports that the relocation is most likely the result of sustained high levels of detection and eradication in traditional growing areas (see Table 6) as well as a desire on the part of the DTOs to reduce transportation costs to the Southwest Border and gain more direct access to drug markets throughout the United States.
Table 6. Cannabis Eradication in Mexico, in Hectares, 2001-2006
Source: Crime and Narcotics Center.
Asian DTOs and criminal groups are increasingly becoming involved in marijuana trafficking in every region of the United States. Asian DTO and criminal group involvement in indoor cannabis cultivation within the United States has increased dramatically since 2005; their cultivation operations are yielding significant quantities of high-potency marijuana. Asian DTOs and criminal groups, primarily ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese, have established cultivation operations in every Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) region of the country, including larger, coordinated operations in the Pacific and New England Regions. Some of the Canada-based Asian DTOs that cultivate cannabis at indoor grow sites are relocating from Canada to the United States, particularly to states near the Northern Border, including Washington, Oregon, northern California, and New Hampshire. Additionally, recent law enforcement reporting indicates that Asian DTOs and criminal groups have also expanded cultivation operations into southern California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Texas. For example, in March 2006 a sophisticated indoor cannabis grow operated by two individuals of Vietnamese descent was found in a house in a residential neighborhood in Montrose, a suburb of Houston, Texas, that contained approximately 1,000 cannabis plants worth an estimated $4 million as well as hydroponic equipment, a watering system, fertilizer, and insecticide. Every room in the house was used for cultivation, indicating that the primary purpose of the residence was cannabis cultivation.
Large quantities of marijuana seized along the Southwest Border--particularly in Arizona--are very likely the result of increased smuggling operations by Mexican DTOs and increased law enforcement efforts. Marijuana smuggling from Mexico--the primary foreign source for marijuana in the United States--through the Arizona-Mexico portion of the Southwest Border appears to be increasing. Cannabis cultivation in Mexico is very high (see Table 7), and most of the marijuana produced in that country is destined for U.S. drug markets. Although overall marijuana production in Mexico appears to have decreased since peaking in 2003, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and NSS data indicate that the amount seized at or between POEs along the Southwest Border has remained relatively stable overall (see Table 8). Moreover, since 2001 marijuana seizures within the Tucson Border Patrol Sector16 have accounted for an increasing percentage of the overall marijuana seizures along the U.S.-Mexico border (see Table 9), and in 2006 the sector reported higher seizure totals than any other border sector (616,534 pounds). The increase in marijuana seizures in the Tucson Border Patrol Sector is quite likely the result of both a shift toward the sector by Mexican DTOs in response to previous law enforcement operations in other states and increased law enforcement efforts such as the Arizona Border Control Initiative, Secure Border Initiative, and Operation Jump Start as well as the allocation of additional Border Patrol resources to the Arizona-Mexico border.
Table 7. Cannabis Cultivation and Production in Mexico, 2001-2005
Table 8. Marijuana Seizures on the Southwest Border, in Kilograms, 2001-2006
Source: National Seizure System.
Table 9. Marijuana Seizures on the Southwest Border, Tucson Sector Only, in Pounds, 2001-2006
Source: Office of Border Control.
The demand for marijuana appears to be relatively stable and declining slightly in some areas; however, many users now prefer and abuse higher-potency marijuana over commercial-grade marijuana. Rates of use for marijuana are much higher than for any other illicit drug; however, rates of use appear to be declining slightly. Anecdotal reporting indicates that marijuana users are demonstrating a preference for higher-potency marijuana. The user preference trending toward higher-potency marijuana is reported in most areas but is most apparent in the Southwest Region. For example, law enforcement officials in Dallas report that the availability of Mexican marijuana exceeds the demand, causing a surplus of the drug and retail price decreases in 2007 (from $450 to $350 per pound). During the same period, rising demand for high-potency marijuana pushed the retail price of the drug up 29 percent (from $3,100 to $4,000 per pound). This price increase occurred during a period of increasing high-potency marijuana availability, a condition that would normally result in lower prices.
The quantity of marijuana available for consumption in the United States remains largely unknown, primarily because of limited domestic production data. Domestic marijuana estimates are based on cannabis eradication and seizure statistics. However, these statistics are underreported--sometime greatly underreported--in some areas because reporting is voluntary for most agencies.
The degree to which marijuana is smuggled from Canada into the United States by Asian DTOs is somewhat unclear. Law enforcement and intelligence reporting indicates that Asian DTOs in Canada have significantly increased the amount of high-potency marijuana smuggled into the United States from Canada via the U.S.-Canada border since 2001. However, data on marijuana seizures at or between U.S.-Canada POEs do not appear to support this reporting. According to NSS data, the amount of marijuana seized at or between U.S.-Canada POEs fluctuated from 2001 through 2006 and does not show a clear trend, either increasing or decreasing (see Table 10). If marijuana smuggling from Canada into the United States were increasing to the degree indicated by law enforcement reporting, increasing marijuana seizures at the U.S.-Canada border would be an expected result.
Table 10. Marijuana Seizures at or Between U.S.-Canada Ports of Entry, in Kilograms, 2001-2006
Increased cannabis cultivation may result in reduced marijuana prices. The recent increases in cannabis cultivation and marijuana production within the United States coincide with the continued flow of marijuana from foreign sources, which may lead to market saturation in major markets. This saturation could reduce the price of the drug significantly.
DTOs and criminal groups that traditionally grew cannabis outdoors will most likely move operations indoors in order to avoid law enforcement detection and to reap higher profits. DTOs and criminal groups, including Caucasian and Mexican groups, will adapt to the increasing law enforcement pressure and improved detection capabilities associated with outdoor grow sites and will most likely shift operations indoors in order to better protect the crops. As such, the groups will produce higher-potency marijuana year-round, allowing for an exponential increase in profits derived. This shift to indoor cultivation is already being noted among law enforcement sources in several areas of the country, such as Appalachian states, where some Caucasian groups have already shifted operations indoors. (However, it is plausible primarily because of the higher profit margins that the next significant shift from outdoor to indoor cultivation will be among Mexican DTOs and criminal groups--the largest producers and distributors of domestically produced marijuana.)
15. These Mexican DTOs are composed of Mexican nationals, who may or may not be associated with a cartel in Mexico.
16. The Tucson Border Patrol Sector includes all of Arizona except for Yuma, La Paz, and Mohave Counties.
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