In remote mountains at about 7,000 feet, above the small Idaho farm town Grace – there must have been some crooked smiles among purveyors of the illicit as they passed through – developed one of the largest and more sophisticated criminal enterprises Idaho has recently seen.
A mass coalition of law enforcement agencies, even including the state national guard, last week swept into the Carbou County backcountry and found an estimated 40,000 marijuana plants. Street value estimates in such cases often are inflated, but it had to have been large. There was law enforcement talk of possible connections to a Mexican cartel; the size of the operation would argue in favor of that theory.
That was not the only big pot bust recently. Southwest of Jerome, 1,100 marijuana plants were found (in an aerial recon), also last week. The week before, they found another 6,500 plants in a Gooding County field.
The fact of these big recent grow finds isn’t proof of major recent growth of an Idaho marijuana industry. But it feels like evidence.
Could even be some cause and effect. Barring coincidence, if large organizations really are behind these big grow operations, what’s happening in neighboring states may have something to do with it.
Eight states may have marijuana-related measures, all aimed at liberalizing pot law, on their ballots this fall. In Oregon and Washington measures to legalize, tax and regulate have hit the ballot, and have a fair chance of passing. Colorado voters will consider a similar option. In these states, if the measures pass, there’ll be a big tussle with the federal government, whose anti-pot laws will not have changed at all. But there’ll also be further growth, probably a balloon, in above-the-table grow operations. In Oregon, there already are a number of large farming businesses openly growing marijuana, under the state’s medical marijuana law. Their formal status is pretty gray-area, even apart from the federal law, but passage of the state ballot issue almost certainly would mean an expansion.
Is it coincidence that more hidden grow operations are turning up in Idaho? Nationally, the Drug Enforcement Agency reports seizures overall fell 35 percent from 2010 to 2011. It may be that more of the pot traffic in Oregon and Washington, and some other states, is becoming internalized as it becomes available through near-conventional means. In Idaho, where even a modest proposal to legalize hemp (which has no psychotropic effect but does have many other marketable uses) has gone nowhere, the underground is, well, deeper underground. There may be less Oregon marketplace for traditional criminal lines of traffic, but these connections are relatively unchanged in Idaho.
State laws matter. When Washington liquor sales moved, some weeks ago, from state stores to private retail sales, prices bounced up. That’s probably a short-term phenomenon, but for the moment at least it has led to heavy traffic in lower-priced Idaho state liquor stores, presumably from Washington residents. (The same thing has happened on the Washington-Oregon border.)
What sort of ongoing effects might Idaho seat if there’s a sorta-kinda pot legalization, and marketplace, west of the Idaho line, and none to the east?