In June 2014, skydiver and pilot Joe Johnson was pulled over as he drove his minivan down a Kansas highway. What began as a routine traffic stop became much more, however, when the state trooper who pulled Johnson over discovered a gun, $374,000 in cash, and 66 pounds of pot in a rear luggage compartment.
Johnson’s arrest led to Operation Golden Go-fer, a DEA investigation that culminated with the October 2014 arrests of 32 illicit cannabis growers and distributors in the Denver area. The bust took down a smuggling ring that was responsible for sending tens of thousands of pounds of weed to Minnesota via skydiving jump planes and autos, bringing in millions of dollars in the process.
A new podcast, The Syndicate, chronicles the smuggling operation brought down by Operation Golden Go-fer, featuring a cast of federal agents, drug mules, DEA moles, and “a cannabis kingpin who took advantage of loopholes in Colorado’s medical marijuana laws, all the while keeping his organization afloat in the face of rivalries, robberies, explosions, and spies,” according to the first episode of the podcast.
The Culture Of Smuggling Weed
But The Syndicate is more than a riveting true-crime series that documents the demise of a criminal organization. It’s also a look into the world of smuggling cannabis in America and the culture that developed and evolved to support it. The host and creator of the podcast, investigative journalist Chris Walker, talked to not only the personalities directly involved in Operation Golden Go-fer, but other pot smuggling veterans as well, including former High Times editor-in-chief Richard Stratton.
“It was really interesting to hear from Stratton about how just the public’s perception of smugglers has changed,” Walker said in a phone interview. “Back in the day, these guys were counter-cultural heroes because you couldn’t get legal weed anywhere. And so anyone who was you know smoking the good stuff had to get it from these smugglers.”
After the 1970s, however, the long-haired heroes were largely replaced by Latin American gangs, a paradigm that remained in place until the dawn of cannabis legalization, beginning with medical marijuana at the close of the 20th Century, provided a new domestic source of marijuana.
“One thing that’s really interesting is that in the 1980s, weed trafficking got really tied up with cocaine trafficking,” Walker explained. “So in the past where it was just hippies that were bringing in hashish and cannabis, now you had it tied up with these dangerous cartels from Central and South America, and it totally changed the perception of marijuana smuggling. So this group kind of brings it to the current day, you just you don’t really hear so much about domestic groups smuggling weed.”
Pot: Legal Or Not?
The Syndicate also explores how the patchwork of cannabis legalization and prohibition in the United States has led to a flood of ostensibly legal products across state lines into the illicit market. As the podcast progresses, Walker reveals how one group of smugglers took advantage of the lucrative but illegal markets created by prohibition.
“The whole series really charts the rise and fall of this organization,” he explained. “And so anyone who straps on board for the ride of the entire series is going to find out how this group was able to scale up such a massive production and distribution operation while hiding in plain sight in Colorado’s legal cannabis industry, which was really its greatest accomplishment—having massive warehouses throughout Denver which were known to the city and to the police and to fire departments.”
“But while it looked above-board on the surface, this was all part of an illicit market operation” Walker continued. “So listeners will find out exactly how they set up, how they got so big once they were distributing that product across state lines, and then some of the fateful decisions that the group made once it hit its height and hit its stride, which ultimately leads to its downfall in quite a spectacular fashion.”