One of the major talking points for Liberal politicians on the road to legalized weed was the impact it was going to have on big, scary organized criminals.
Over and over, the effects on organized crime was championed by Liberal MP Bill Blair, the man who spearheaded legal weed. Hell, Blair’s title is the Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction and when we Canadians—other than our fine Mafia-minded friends in Quebec—tend to think of organized crime in the Great White North we (well, at least I) get a vision of a bad man in leathers ripping around on his hog with the HA logo on his back.
We (incorrectly for the most part) think of these guys moving weight out of a clubhouse, operating sophisticated grow-ops buried in BC mountains, or showing up to threaten our high school dealer Jimbo. But the thing is the Hells Angels will most likely meet today’s legalization with not a frustrated roar but a shrug.
The Hells Angels, according to experts, just haven’t been all that focused on marijuana for some time now. Jerry Langton, the author of several books about organized crime in Canada, told VICE that weed just isn’t one of the primary focuses for the Hells Angels. Moving weed is a high-risk and low-reward activity, especially when you think of how much more you might make with cocaine or prescription pills.
There is an old adage in law enforcement, Langton says: a cocaine dealer drives a Ferrari, a marijuana dealer takes the bus.
"If you look at an ounce of marijuana and an ounce of cocaine, one is very, very hard to detect, easy to conceal, no real smell, the other is exactly the opposite,” said Langton. “The profit is one-tenth that of cocaine. From a purely economic standpoint, it doesn't make much sense to move marijuana.”
On top of the pros of trafficking marijuana not outweighing the cons, well, they don’t really like the customers, Langton adds. “At least two bikers I know have said they would never deal weed because the customers are picky,” said Langton. “They're like people who like craft beer or a fine wine.”
Typically, says Langton, the bulk of the marijuana business in Canada is left to what he calls the “lower echelon of crime.” However, Staff Sgt. Anthony Renton, the head of the OPPs Biker Enforcement Unit, says that it’s important to remember that, as always, the world isn’t as black or white. The Hells Angels are a criminal organization focused on making money and if they can make some cash off weed they will.
"When we get into our investigations we find that there can be that marijuana component just as easy as the cocaine trafficking component,” Renton told VICE. "It's just one piece. The illicit drug trade is vast, there is a number of different products, [marijuana] is substantial, but it is just one piece, there is a number of illicit drugs that are a part of that trade."
The Hells Angels are involved with the overarching marijuana trade in Canada, yes, but in a much more indirect way than the majority of Canadians think. It changes by location—as the HA works through localized chapters—but broadly the Hells Angels work more like a cog in the black market weed machine than the primary benefactors. To simplify it greatly, the HA get the product from someone, then hand it down to one of their puppet clubs, who hand it down from there, and so on and so forth. The most impacted by legalization is going to be the low-level street dealers, Langton explains. The economic effects will hit the HA, primarily by losing the kickback from dealers on their turf they would have made, but in the long run, it’s a minuscule amount.
"When Hells Angels are involved in marijuana, it's generally more of a strong arm thing,” said Langton. “They'll find out about a grower and go to them and say, 'give me twenty percent of your revenue or we'll beat you up, take your knees out, rape your wife.’ They’ll do or say something to guarantee that they pay. They do the same when there is a dealer in their territory. So they don't really handle the weed—they don't even see it—but they still make money from it."
To note, legalization is, obviously, only going to be mostly impacting the domestic portion of the marijuana trade meaning that the export game is still fair. Remember, prior to this Canada was a net exporter and we can’t have legit growers of marijuana selling their product within countries where it is illegal now, can we?
The hot market right now simply isn’t weed, it’s opioids. The Hells Angels have, like any good business, diversified. They make their money not just off drug trafficking but a myriad of things, this Langton explains, can include but not be limited to “prostitution, racketeering, political kickbacks, muscle for hire” and so on.
“The point of the group is they're extremely adaptable,” he adds.
All that said though, Renton cautions not to think that the Hells Angels won’t attempt to find a way into profiting off legalized marijuana. As Langton says, they’re just so damn adaptable. When medical marijuana became popular there were indications they attempted to get in on the medical marijuana game by facilitating licences for growers or using licences of their own to grow and move their product onto the black market. Frankly, the surprising thing would be if they didn’t try to make money off this legalization.
"It's very difficult for us to predict, at this point, how they are going to take advantage of the legalization of marijuana and how they will try to profit from it,” said Renton. “I think you may see them try to paint a picture that they're going to try and gain legitimately, as others will, but an organized crime group generally profits from organized crime."
"I fully suspect they'll find a way to make money off this."
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