A $12 million black market business. A hash lab that exploded the same night it was made. Secret bags of cash stashed in ravines. A skydiver who used his planes to transport weed across state borders. All highly illegal. All hidden in plain sight.
In a nutshell, this is the impossible sounding, high-octane story of a sophisticated smuggling network that used skydiving planes to sneak millions of dollars worth of weed and cash across state borders in the United States from 2010 to 2014. In what was termed one of Colorado’s "largest and most sophisticated criminal enterprises" since medical marijuana was legalised in 2000, a smuggling ring operated from the throngs of the legal weed business in Denver, running an extremely profitable and illegal side-business.
Over the course of four years that the drug trafficking ring was alive, a team of more than 71 individuals operated a highly sophisticated smuggling network that used skydiving planes to sneak 12 million dollars worth of weed and cash across state borders. One of its most intriguing aspects was that it operated smack in the middle of Denver’s most popular and profitable legal weed growing warehouses, its growers posing as medical caregivers to evade regulation and taxation.
Of course, like most highs, it didn’t last too long.
When Joseph Johnson, the key conspirator and also owner of a skydiving business in Minnesota and Texas, was intercepted by border patrol police while he was on a cocaine high, it all came crumbling down. Johnson was caught with $330,000 of cash and several packets of marijuana, compelling him to wear a wire and work as an informant for the DEA to avoid being arrested. The rest is extensively-covered history.
But while the busted operation made a big splash back in 2015, Denver-based journalist Chris Walker realised the gritty details were being glossed over. So, he spent the last five years crafting a podcast called “The Syndicate”, an eight-episode series that dives deep into this world of skydiving planes that smuggled weed. We caught up with Walker to ask him about how he gained access to the inner workings of the operation, what it was like to go skydiving with the key conspirator as part of research for the podcast, and what this story means for the industry of legal marijuana in the U.S.
VICE: Hey Chris! Why did you decide to go back to this thrilling real-life story?
Chris Walker: When this operation was busted in 2015, every local news outlet was covering it. They were made an example of, but only a handful of details like the fact that they used skydiving planes, and that their friends and family came to Colorado, were released. Law enforcement wasn’t able to say much beyond their public comments because they didn’t want the press to impact court proceedings. But in 2019, details of the case were released, which allowed me to access perspectives of the individuals involved in this operation. For almost five years, they were mashed together as a group, even though each member had their own reason and story to get involved. I was curious to know why this group set up such a highly illegal operation in Colorado—one of the few states that had legalised weed for medical and recreational use at the time. And while there have been other cases of black market dealers operating in legalised states, what was unique about this story was the scale of their operation and the sheer brazenness with which they functioned, managing to evade multiple arrests despite making boneheaded mistakes.
As part of your research, you went skydiving with the key conspirator. Did that throw insight into why he did what he did?
There’s a parallel between extreme sports and doing an activity that’s so inherently risky. Both make you feel alive, in a way that’s so removed from your minute to minute existence. It helped me understand why Johnson and his team were so hooked onto the sensation of taking a dangerous risk, and the relief of getting away with it.
I’d been in touch with Joe since the story broke out in 2015. I’m quite an adrenaline junkie and we had several exchanges over the phone where we spoke about skydiving at length. Then, when the time came to meet, of course he suggested we should go skydiving. I will say I had my doubts because of course the easiest way to get rid of a curious reporter would be to take him skydiving and have an “accident”. But for the story I wanted to tell, trust was the most important factor. So, I decided to trust Joe with my life and do the interview while skydiving. I’m glad I made that choice.
Did you figure out things they could’ve been done differently to avoid being caught?
My aim was to explore each individual’s motivations, complexities and personalities. I spoke to a 69-year-old grandmother who got suckered into helping the group, as well as employees who worked closely with Tri Nguyen, the founder of the operation. They told me about all the times they’d been raided, by both the police, as well as rival black market groups. We explored how they built a hash lab to make edibles that used a butane extraction method to acquire hash oil, and how it exploded because they used highly inflammable materials with no precautions. That could have been enough for them to get caught, but they didn’t. They escaped from one mistake to the other.
But one of the biggest mistakes they made, which is pivotal to the story and the risks they took, was when they tried to make their entire operation legal. Their goal was to establish themselves as skilled growers so they could merge with other growers and dispensaries. They came close to making that transition, and would’ve gotten away too. But, they were concerned about losing millions of dollars of profit in the short term, as well as having to restart in a regulated system. So they decided not to make the transition, and were unfortunately caught soon after.
What do you hope to achieve by re-telling this story today?
On a broader level I wanted to figure out what this story meant for cannabis regulation and legislation in the U.S., and what are the consequences of the country having state-by-state differentiation of cannabis being legal. The idea was also to explore how this situation creates opportunities worth millions for the black market.
At the end of the series, I want people to think about what this has taught us about cannabis laws, and whether we need it to be nationally legal. We’ve had such a long drawn out war on drugs, and such high incarceration for decades. But while the state of Colorado deserves credit for their investigation, are there things they can do so we don’t have to deal with these kinds of situations? That’s the question I wanted people to ask.
I didn’t set out to support the legalisation movement, but ultimately I feel this podcast shows why it’s important for cannabis, which has a myriad of proven medical benefits, to be governed by consistent laws across the country.
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