From skydiving planes to DEA moles, "The Syndicate" explores the fall of a marijuana-smuggling ring

Journalist Chris Walker spoke to Salon about uncovering the fascinating story of how black market groups operate

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published August 18, 2020 6:00PM (EDT)

The Syndicate (Photos provided by publicist/Salon)
The Syndicate (Photos provided by publicist/Salon)

In October 2014, SWAT team officers and DEA agents kicked down the doors of 32 people around Denver, all members of a massive marijuana-smuggling ring. For almost five years, the group had fooled regulators overseeing Colorado's medical marijuana industry by operating seemingly legitimate growhouses, all the while trafficking its harvests out of state using cars — and skydiving planes.

Yep, skydiving planes. 

In his new podcast "The Syndicate," journalist Chris Walker goes beyond some of the case's flashy details, speaking to both the members of the criminal organization and the law enforcement agents who took them down, and uncovers how the push for legal marijuana in some states actually drives up black market demand nationally. 

Walker spoke with Salon about how long he waited to report this story, how the members of "The Syndicate" gamed the medical marijuana system, and what it would take for federal legalization to actually work. 

Tell me a little bit about how you became acquainted with the story that's presented in "The Syndicate." You were living in Colorado when the major drug bust happened, right? 

Right, so in 2015 when this group was busted, or at least a grand jury indictment was handed down, I was working as a staff writer for the second largest newspaper in Denver, which is actually an alternative weekly. This press conference made a splash. I mean, it was the largest pot bust in Colorado since the state had legalized recreational weed in 2012. And it was just shocking the size and scale of this black market operation. 

They were using skydiving planes to ship pot out of state. It was a collection of all these college friends and their family members that came from Minnesota to Colorado to hide undercover in the legal market. So they got plenty of attention at the time, there was a big press conference at the Colorado Attorney General's office, and every outlet in Denver and many around the country, as well, covered this story. 

But there were limitations. At that time, there were 32 court cases that came out of this, and the state of Colorado wanted to make sure that it could successfully prosecute each of those cases without additional media coverage marring their legal cases. 

So, the state's stayed tight-lipped about this for about four years, but I knew that I if I could ever get access to some of the operatives who were allegedly involved in this group, as well as get the law enforcement side, it would just be a fascinating insight into how black market groups operate. Moreover, it would answer this main question in my mind, "If Colorado had a seemingly thriving legal market, why would you take risks to set up this massive black market operation?"

Right. I think there's this misconception that in an era of increased marijuana legalization that there's less "need" for a black market, or that smuggling is on the decline — but what is the reality of the situation?

Right, so the reality of the situation is that weed is still illegal at the federal level, and not all states have legal weed. There are some states that just don't have a legal market, so by definition, the only place where you can buy cannabis in those states is "the black market." 

But that's not to say that there isn't also a thriving black market in states that have legalized weed. That's a whole other set of issues. I mean, California is experiencing problems on that front because weed is so heavily taxed there that many people are still choosing to use their street dealer rather than buying it a dispensary. So there are well-established markets in both states that have legal cannabis and in states that don't.

Well — and you address this in the podcast — but what is the reality like for someone who is growing illegally who wants to start growing legally? It's not as simple as walking down to the county clerk and getting a permit. 

So in many states, including Colorado where this story is based, they've actually handed down a lot of control over the cannabis industry to local municipalities and cities. Then there is state involvement as well. There are decisions and various powers given to authorities to award licenses depending on what the municipality's comfort level with how many pot shops they'll allow and how many grow facilities they will allow. Cannabis is a big business and there's a lot of consumer demand for it, so the competition for a limited number of licenses is really stiff. 

And what we're seeing right now is a sort of corporatization in the cannabis industry and big Wall Street-backed companies that are starting in multiple states. We're seeing multimillion dollar bidding wars for the limited licenses that come up in the new markets. So the idea of being a small "mom and pop" operation and starting from humble roots — pardon the pun — is just not feasible in many places. 

One of the questions that is raised in "The Syndicate" is about how the medical marijuana system can be gamed, like it was by the alleged ringleader Tri Nguyen. Could you talk some about that? 

This really gets to why many of these group members originated in Minnesota and came to Colorado, which had a legal market. So, let's start from the standpoint of someone trying to start a large, illegal marijuana grow. If you're doing that in a state like Minnesota, you have a couple options. You can try to do it outside, but that's seriously exposed and easy to see from the air. You could try to do it inside, but that requires huge amounts of electricity and then you have to deal with the huge amount of waste that comes with harvesting cannabis. You'd have to be continually hiding that from, you know, even like your local garbage collector. 

So, in Denver, there are over 600 cannabis cultivation facilities. That's just in the city of Denver alone. 

And they [the members of "The Syndicate"] were also taking advantage of an antiquated law in Colorado called the caregiving program. The state of Colorado expanded the program in 2008 and quickly registered so many caregivers that the state couldn't really monitor what each and every one of them was going. 

Under the caregiving program, they could grow up to 500 plants. So what this group did is they all registered as caregivers and then pooled all their pot together. They had paperwork that was official and signed by the state of Colorado. And they did have registered patients as well, but they were using all their allotted plants to really grow for the black market and ship it out of state. 

And then in conjunction with what I was saying earlier, too, they could establish their warehouse right next to the hundreds of legitimate ones that are spread throughout the city. 

On that note, you mentioned that you knew early on that you wanted to speak with people on both sides — you know, growing and distributing, and then on the law enforcement side. What did it look like when you were trying to gain access to some of these people? 

So, the law enforcement side, that's easier to answer. I approached the Colorado Department of Law. It was a fairly impressive investigation. I mean, it thoroughly dismantled this group. They figured out pretty much every person who was involved in it for a span of four years. So I approached the state and say, "Hey, I can tell you spent a lot of resources and time on this investigation, and I want to help you spotlight the work that you did, and also find out what this says about the black market." 

Colorado was on board, but they wanted to wrap up all their court cases before revealing more information at the time. Pretty much every other reporter in Denver had moved on from the story. They'd covered the bust, but they were on to other things. So, I had to wait until April 2019 for all the court cases to be concluded. The reason for that is that one personally actually went on the lam and it took until 2019 to locate him in North Carolina and prompt extradite him back to Colorado. 

But once that happened, I was able to see a lot of evidence that existed around this case that I knew existed, but was sealed to me before — which included about 100 hours of recorded interrogation tape with 20 tapes. 

Then approaching alleged members of this group was a whole other path that I had to go down. I spent considerable time trying to get in touch with each and every person. You some, some people didn't want to talk about this, some people believe they were subjected to overzealous law enforcement and some people, you know, wanted to just sort of address the errors of their pasts and express remorse for what they had done. 

Every single person was different,so those conversations were always interesting for me to test out. You know, how can I work with this individual to get their story out there in a respectful, but also truthful way, to make sure that I wasn't getting spun as well? 

Was that a fear of yours? I mean, how did you balance wanting to spotlight the work law enforcement did, while also giving voice to people on the other side of this bust — all without feeling like either side was playing you? 

Yeah, it's tough because I feel like in these situations, the truth always lies somewhere in between, right? Law enforcement would certainly tell this story one way. Then if you only had the perspective of the drug smuggling group, it would be skewed in another direction. I had to make a lot of decisions about what was a fair way to portray certain situations. 

Here's an example. The show covers some pretty dramatic SWAT raids that happened when the group was busted. This is a part of the story that is told very differently depending on who you talk to. On the drug smuggler side, it was a horrific experience, having a SWAT team bust through your windows and explode flash bangs in your home and terrorize your family. Then on the law enforcement side, it's like, "Oh, well, this is absolutely justified because these people are so dangerous."

The truth is probably somewhere in between in that it was probably overzealous on the side of the SWAT team, but there was probably some justification in that these guys were involved in a pretty shady underworld. 

Well, and something that I found interesting about this reported podcast is that there are a lot of flashy details — like, skydiving drug mules, buried bags of cash, partying, cocaine. It sounds like a movie. How much of that was present in the initial media coverage surrounding "The Syndicate" drug bust?

Some of those details did come out in the initial media coverage and press conference around the bust in 2015. Because the state of Colorado is just as savvy as anyone else about garnering media attention, they knew that they could probably get more coverage of their investigation if they talked about the fact like "Oh, by the way, they were also shipping up to 900 pounds of per trip on these skydiving planes."

For me as a journalist that specializes in narrative stories, I feel like some of those details are necessary if you're really going to delve into a lot of policy angles and bigger picture questions about the law and justice in the United States. You need some of those more cinematic elements to just kind of coax your audience into some of the more intellectual questions that arise from these types of stories. 

What are some of the policy issues that you're hoping people maybe do consider if they're listening to "The Syndicate"?

I think the first and most immediate one, or the most obvious one, is just this question of federal legalization. Would we have as much black market activity, and would a group like this have been able to pull off the feat they did, if we had just across-the-country legal cannabis? The answer is probably no. 

I mean, I do some editorializing at the end of this show. I think it is an argument for taking cannabis off the schedule of drugs, or at least getting it out of Schedule I drug classification at the federal level.

Polls show that two thirds of Americans favor recreational pot and around 80% favor medical marijuana. That's just like a massive wave of support for federal legalization, which could immediately tackle part of this problem. 

But even if you were to do that, then this is returning the conversation again to states like California and, to some extent, Colorado. Legalizing weed nationally is just not going to solve the problem overnight. You still need to make sure that consumers can find weed in conveniently available locations. This has happened in Canada, for instance, where there are jurisdictions with just no pot shops, so everyone in that jurisdiction who wants to buy weed has to get it from a black market dealer, right? 

And then even if you have legal dispensaries, you'll also need to ensure supply and then also have a competitive price. If there is a huge markup, the vast majority of buyers are still going to turn to the black market because they're just like, "No, I'm not willing to pay twice as much to get weed from a dispensary." 

So, all of which to say, federal legalization is a step towards combating some of these problems, but it's a long road ahead. There's a lot of considerations that need to be carefully weighed to make sure we can slowly chip away at the black market. 

New episodes of "The Syndicate" debut every Tuesday. You can listen to the first three episodes here or listen in the player below.

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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