South Bend, Ind. — An influx of high-grade marijuana has made its way to northern Indiana from western states that have legalized recreational pot, contributing to a spike in local prices and raising concerns that it could add to black-market drug activity and the crime that comes along with it.
Fueled by an increasing demand for potent, carefully grown marijuana, dealers are bringing product from Colorado and Washington state to the Midwest, where it can fetch as much as $800 an ounce — far more than the pot commonly imported from Mexico and South America and triple the traditional price for weed in this area, police told the South Bend Tribune.
“Historically, we would get truckloads of weed from Mexico, but now it’s apparent that some of this weed, especially the higher quality weed, is coming from states where you purchase recreational marijuana,” said Guy Baker, resident agent in charge for the Drug Enforcement Administration’s regional office in Merrillville.
“The supply chain is growing, and the black market is thriving with people that are selling legally grown marijuana from these states.”
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Baker said DEA agents this year have intercepted three shipments of marijuana that was grown and packaged in Colorado. One shipment was being carried in a Greyhound bus, and individual dealers were apparently bringing the other two shipments back to Indiana after trips to Colorado.
South Bend police, meanwhile, recently uncovered several packages of weed from western states while conducting routine drug interdictions with police dogs at local postal facilities and shipping distribution centers.
And in Elkhart County, police have noticed an increase in marijuana advertised by dealers as a high-grade product, but no investigations have tied the weed specifically to Colorado or other western states, said Ed Windbigler, who leads a narcotics unit based in the county prosecutor’s office.
“What we’re hearing is this is high-quality stuff, so that’s the buzzword, that’s their justification for charging more,” Windbigler said.
The pot grown in Colorado and Washington often appears in unique packaging, police said, and is advertised on the street as “Loud,” a brand name of sorts.
The recent $375-per-ounce local street prices closely mirror the price of an ounce of top-quality marijuana in Colorado and Washington — the first two states to legalize the retail sale of recreational marijuana — where a pound of the stuff goes for about $6,000.
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In South Bend, those numbers marked a dramatic spike in street prices in the past two or three years, police said.
“The prices are way up,” said Sgt. John Mortakis, who has been involved in drug investigations since the 1980s. “They call this stuff ‘Loud,’ it comes from Colorado and Washington, and it goes for $200 to $400, and even up to 800 bucks an ounce.”
In states where it’s legal to grow and sell recreational marijuana, heavy taxes drive prices up even more. But some growers have found they can make a huge profit by supplying the out-of-state black market, which allows them to sell the marijuana at a premium while avoiding taxes, Baker said.
“It’s all high-quality, high-grade marijuana, and they’re able to sell it for additional cost here,” Baker said. “They even market it as the best stuff they have in Colorado.”
Mortakis said local dealers likely double the volume of their product and pad their profits even more by mixing the high-grade “Loud” with low-quality wild marijuana that commonly grows on area farmland — a remnant of World War II-era industrial hemp farming.
And as the prices have soared, both sellers and consumers have begun walking around with larger wads of cash, making them attractive targets for robbers looking for quick cash or rival dealers who want to dominate the market, said Capt. Phil Trent, a South Bend police spokesman.
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“There’s a lot of people walking around with a lot of cash in their pockets, and they’re getting robbed, and it’s marijuana deals that go bad,” he said. “It completely raises the stakes.”
South Bend police said a confounding increase in street robberies last year could be traced at least partly to the flow of dope from western states.
Last year, South Bend police saw a 15 percent increase in armed robberies from 2012 — a spike that prompted the detective bureau to create a two-person unit dedicated to solving street holdups.
“We’ve noticed an increase in some of the robberies that we find out it’s a drug transaction that went bad,” said South Bend police Capt. Scott Hanley, who leads major crimes investigations. “A lot of times we have some evidence that leads us that way, but because of a lack of cooperation from the victim, it’s hard to get to the truth.”
Overall, South Bend has seen a 19 percent decrease in armed robberies this year from the high number in 2013, a decline Hanley attributed largely to the increased focus on street holdups.
Tim Corbett, commander of the St. Joseph County Metro Homicide Unit, said the origin of drugs generally does not matter in a murder investigation. But because people involved in drug violence are usually looking for a big payoff, a more expensive product could provide greater motivation, he said.
“These guys aren’t going to take a chance on robbing you for a buck,” he said. “They’re going to take a chance hitting you for a good score.