Exporting Pot from Colorado:
An Online Analysis

marijuana bundles

Will Colorado someday end up like Northern California? Could the Centennial State’s economy come to be dominated by the cultivation and sale of cannabis? By some reports, the entire economy of Humboldt County on the coast of rural Northern California revolves around marijuana. Property owners planting cannabis on their land. People being employed on the grow operations, including seasonal laborers who stand by the roadside advertising their services as cannabis trimmers for the harvest. And then there are the activities that support the marijuana trade, from the businesses that sell equipment and goods necessary to the operations to everything from grocery stores and landlords whose livelihood depends in large measure on the fact that so many people in that area are working in the illegal drug trade. On paper, Humboldt County’s economy is heavily dependent on other sectors of industry — for example, the county is the source of a major portion of all the timber exports from California — but this, of course, does not include the impact that growing and selling cannabis has on the local economy. Simply put, many of the jobs in Humboldt County are entirely dependent on the fact that the area is the source of a large amount of all the domestically grown marijuana in the United States. In fact, Humboldt County is part of a larger region known as the Emerald Triangle (similar to the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia which is a region famous for opium production), which also features major marijuana growing regions including Mendocino and Trinity Counties.

indoor marijuana crops

Marijuana cultivation is nothing new to Humboldt County and the rest of the Emerald Triangle. On the contrary, it holds a well-established position in that region, with some cannabis growers dating their productions back 50 years or more. More recently, the economic impact of marijuana on those counties has expanded, since California voters chose to legalize medical marijuana, thereby increasing the demand for the drug with more people who wanted to use it being able to buy it legally.

In light of developments such as this, many are wondering whether Colorado will follow in the footsteps of Humboldt County and the rest of the Emerald Triangle in coming to lean heavily on the economic impact of marijuana cultivation and export, now that Colorado has legalized marijuana for recreational uses. After all, Colorado’s central geographical location makes it a prime spot for shipping drugs elsewhere in the nation, meaning that it has the potential to even exceed Humboldt County in terms of the amount of the drug trafficked across the United States. Indeed, there already appears to be some evidence that this will occur, based on trends that were observed in the wake of the 2000 vote to legalize medical marijuana.

Feds Investigate Colorado as a Marijuana Exporter

An August 2012 report, “Colorado’s ‘Medical’ Marijuana: Are Regulations Working or is ‘Medical’ Marijuana Being Diverted?” published by the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), attempted to answer the question of whether the legalization of medical marijuana in one state would lead to more of the drug being trafficked into other states. The answer they found was a resounding “Yes.” Investigators from the HIDTA requested the assistance of law enforcement agencies throughout the country in determining just how far marijuana was making it from Colorado. They asked for information on arrests for pot possession where it could be determined with certainty that the cannabis had originated in Colorado, and the discovered that the drug was spreading not only into neighboring states but indeed was found across the U.S. In other words, Colorado had already become a hub for marijuana trafficking prior to the vote to legalize the drug for recreational purposes. The arrests weren’t all merely for simple possession of a small amount of pot for personal use, either. One representative example involved a man who was arrested with 120 pounds of marijuana for his “prescription,” an amount that would have been valued in the range of hundreds of thousands of dollars on the street. All told, the number of interdiction seizures of marijuana originating in Colorado rose by more than four times from an average of 52 per year to 242 over the course of the two years during the study period.

Will Colorado be the next state for drug tourism?

In this light, Colorado joins Florida as being a place to go to get drugs. Many of the cases reported in the HIDTA study involved people who had traveled to the Mile High State to purchase marijuana and then bring it home for themselves or to sell to others. Florida was recently in this same position, earning the nickname “Oxy Express” for the fact that it was so easy to buy painkillers including OxyContin in the Sunshine State. Since then, lawmakers, regulatory agencies, law enforcement and doctors in Florida have cracked down to make it harder to obtain pain pills for nonmedical use, and it can only be hoped that the people and government of Colorado will follow suit in doing something to prevent their state from being the fountain for marijuana into other states where the voters haven’t chosen to legalize the drug. As it stands, however, there is no reason to expect that they will take such a move.

At the time of the HIDTA investigation, when marijuana was legal in Colorado only for medicinal purposes and was therefore subject to tighter regulations, it was already easy to buy the drug. All one had to do was to find a “4/20 Friendly” doctor who was willing to write a prescription for marijuana. Even without a prescription, undercover investigators were routinely successful in getting dispensaries to sell them the drugs, and not exclusively on a small scale. On the contrary, investigators more than once found dispensary employees ready and willing to ship hundreds of pounds of cannabis to locations across the nation, a severe violation of federal law.

Could Marijuana Become Colorado’s Cash Crop?

Of course, it would be highly unlikely that the economy of Colorado would ever become so heavily dependent on marijuana as has proven to be the case with Humboldt County — after all, the statewide economy is among the most robust in the nation and is highly diverse — but it would be easy to see cannabis growers stepping into a major role on that stage and even coming to the forefront in some counties. Were this to happen, we would almost certainly see a major expansion of the current trend, with greater and greater amounts of marijuana being exported from Colorado to other parts of the country.

One major difference, however, would be in the identity of those who stand to profit the most. Because marijuana is still only marginally legal in California, the widespread cultivation of the drug in that state is still illegal, and currently, the major growing operations are run by Mexican and Asian drug cartels. With increasing legalization, however, there would be less money to make for criminals and other parties could and would move in to profit. Imagine Philip Morris purchasing wide tracts of land for the purpose of growing cannabis to sell joints in cartons next to Marlboro Reds. We would not see anything like that happen until marijuana was legalized on the federal level, a development that seems increasingly likely in light of current trends and opinion polls. For now, however, it is apparent that the legalization of marijuana in Colorado has put that state in a position to become a major supplier of the drug to the rest of the United States, and it will be up to law enforcement to catch the drug as it crosses the border and before it spreads throughout the country.


Sue Birkenshaw

Sue has worked in the addiction field with the Narconon network for three decades. She has developed and administered drug prevention programs worldwide and worked with numerous drug rehabilitation centers over the years. Sue is also a fine artist and painter, who enjoys traveling the world which continues to provide unlimited inspiration for her work. You can follow Sue on Twitter, or connect with her on LinkedIn.