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Oklahoma Is Biggest U.S. Source of Black-Market Weed

Finding marijuana crops in Oklahoma these days is easy, said Logan County Sheriff’s Deputy Chris Tillman, as he stared at rows of cannabis greenhouses surrounded by fields of red-dirt farmland. Is it all legal? “It’s not always clear what we should be looking for,” Tillman said. The Sooner State has become the biggest source of black-market weed in the country, the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics estimated this month, reports the Wall Street Journal. Drawn by cheap land, affordable licenses and light regulatory oversight, marijuana growers by the hundreds flocked to Oklahoma after the state began allowing commercial marijuana cultivation when it legalized the drug for medicinal purposes in 2018. With no limit on how much marijuana the operations can grow or how big farms can be, output ballooned well beyond what medical marijuana patients, 0 percent of the state’s four million residents, would appear able to consume legally. The state has issued licenses for 7,000 growers and for 2,600 dispensaries. “You don’t even have enough dispensaries in the state of Oklahoma to dispense as much marijuana as we’re producing,” said Donnie Anderson of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics. “That marijuana is gonna go somewhere and it’s going out of state.” Moving marijuana across state lines is illegal under federal law. Oklahoma officials are trying to gain control of the exploding marijuana industry, amid violent crimes and residents’ complaints about skunk-like smells on an industrial scale. Gov. Kevin Stitt signed this year a two-year moratorium on new medical-marijuana businesses. The state launched a seed-to-sale tracking system to make it difficult for illegal growers to sell to dispensaries. In Logan County, north of Oklahoma City, Sheriff Damon Devereaux said criminals target farms, dispensaries and even the homes of those who work in the industry because operations are cash businesses. Because marijuana isn't legal federally, many banks won't accept deposits associated with it. Guards armed with assault rifles have become a fixture at some farms and deputies often respond to robberies at the businesses, Devereaux said. “It really is the Wild West,” he said. “I worry that what we’ve seen in Kingfisher County is just a small part of what’s to come.” He was referring to the sensational murders of three men and one woman this past month at a 10-acre pot farm. A suspect in the killings, Wu Chen, 45, was apprehended by police in Miami Beach, Fl,. Prosecutors, who have charged him with murder, said in court papers that he had demanded he be paid $300,000 within 30 minutes as a return of a portion of his investment in marijuana production before opening fire. Mark Woodward of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics said the agency is investigating about 2,000 farms suspected of having obtained their grow license through fraudulent means. Under the law, grow operations must have 75 percent local ownership. Still, Woodward said that many foreign and out-of-state investors simply pay an Oklahoma resident to be the majority owner in name only. Going after these “ghost farms” is one way state authorities are trying to clamp down on the black market.

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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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