Would legal weed increase the heroin problem?

Posted at 10:01 AM, Oct 16, 2015
and last updated 2015-10-16 10:01:21-04

CINCINNATI —  Backers of the legalization of marijuana in Ohio expect to see a reduction in drug crimes and arrests if the measure passes, but Cincinnati’s illegal drug dealers aren’t going away even it does, law enforcement and drug experts said.

Ohioans will vote in November on Issue 3, the proposed constitutional amendment that would let adults 21 and older buy marijuana for medicinal or recreational use and grow up to four plants. It’s being pushed by a group called Responsible Ohio, which is led by 10 investors who would own marijuana growing facilities.

The impact that legal weed would have on illegal pot dealers is still a question that most can’t definitively answer. Some worry that Cincinnati’s low-level pot dealers would begin selling harder drugs. Others point out there’s still a black market for marijuana in states where the drug is now legal and the law enforcement officials dealing with it are busier than ever.

Will Pot Dealers Switch to Harder Drugs?
For more than three years, 33-year-old Brian Mallory made his living selling weed in Cincinnati before it landed him in prison for 18 months in 2004.

As a felon, Mallory said he had a hard time finding a “real” job, and even if he could have worked in a legal setting back then, he didn’t want to.

“People make more selling weed than they would at a regular job,” he said. “For most people, it beat having a job, but to be honest, in this market, in Cincinnati….that’s like one of the only options, for real, to even get by —  period.”

Mallory is convinced Cincinnati’s low-level pot dealers would go out of business if marijuana is legalized, and they would start selling harder drugs instead.

“Let’s be honest man, a lot of people are going to go to the dispensary just because there’s a dispensary and it seems like a safer route than going to your ‘hood or going to somebody else’s house,” he said.

The Cincinnati native said he quit selling weed more than a decade ago, but he’s heard dealers talk about the issue on the streets and online.

“I can see it. I’m from the streets. I know how this works. Once you take something out, they're gonna find something to put in its place. That’s what street people do,” he said.  “I know where it’s about to hit. Like, we got enough problems with the heroin epidemic. I don’t want to see that grow."

Doug Williams, a special agent who oversees the violent crimes squad at the FBI's Cincinnati division, said Mallory’s point isn’t too far-fetched.

“If that’s the only business that these guys have, and they’re taken out of the business, it’s like ‘What is next?’ If they don’t have marijuana to sell….We’re in the midst of the heroin epidemic, and it would make sense that some of them may turn to selling heroin.”

Derek Siegle, director of the Ohio High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, a federally funded grant program which supports drug task forces, said organizations and “true drug traffickers” are going to remain active whether weed is legal or not.

"Now, for the small guy, I could see that being true. If I’m a drug dealer by trade and I sell marijuana and you take that away from me, I probably will deal something else because that’s what I know. I know dealing drugs,” he said.

Despite Mallory’s fears, Sgt. Arthur Schultz, who works for the Cincinnati Police Department’s undercover Vice Unit, said he hasn’t heard Cincinnati’s dealers are against the proposed amendment or that they plan to sell harder drugs.

“Based on my experience. I would still think there would be a market for marijuana just because there is still a market for prescription pills even though they are legal,” Schultz said.

Supporters of Issue 3, including groups like Responsible Ohio, say the legalization of marijuana will mean less work for law enforcement. They say there will be fewer marijuana possession arrests and property crimes will drop. The legalization will curb the black market, they say, and consequently cut off street gangs and drug cartels from a key revenue stream. 

Black Market Booms Where Weed Legal 

Colorado's illegal dealers are still in business since recreational weed became legal there in 2012, officers there said.

“There has been no slowing down on the black market on any drug in Denver really since marijuana was legal. Black market sales are flourishing here,” said Jim Gerhardt, a sergeant with the North Metro Drug Task Force in Colorado and the vice president of the state's Drug Investigations Association. “In fact, the black market has just become more bold. There are black market dealers who advertise marijuana sales right now on Craigslist.

“There is no shortage of ingenious ways that people are trying to think of making money off of dealing pot right now and undercutting the retail industry."

That’s why some Ohioans don’t think weed dealers will go out of business if marijuana is legalized here.

“They will always be able to undercut the legitimate market. They can make it stronger, they can make it cheaper and they can supply the market that the legal market can’t supply,” said Siegle.

Aaron Pullins, a street outreach worker at the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission, compared it to the black market that exists in Cincinnati right now.

“Is alcohol legal? People are still selling hooch, man," he said. "They’re selling moonshine. There’s people who rob liquor shops and take all of their liquor to the streets." 

Gerhardt said illegal pot dealers in Colorado are undercutting the retail industry by dropping the 30 percent tax that dispensaries tack on. They’re also selling to people under 21 who can’t legally purchase marijuana from a store.

He said there probably are weed dealers in Colorado that switched to selling harder drugs when pot became legal, but there’s no way for officers to find out how often that’s happened.

“Drug dealing is not like a specialty shop at the mall where you go to buy candles at that shop and go to buy linens at that shop,” he said, adding that many of the dealers he encounters sell more than one drug.