I-Team: Records show Ohio in Top 5 in country for most pot seized by postal inspectors

Marijuana is perfectly legal in Ohio if it’s being used for medical reasons, and you have a medical marijuana card from a doctor. But the News Center 7 I-Team got a hold of records showing U.S. Postal Inspectors have caught more than 7 tons of marijuana on its way to Ohioans through the U.S. mail. That’s among the top five states in the country for marijuana seizures in the mail.

The I-Team’s lead investigative reporter, John Bedell, looked into why investigators are finding so much of it in the Buckeye State.

Even if marijuana is fully legal in a state it’s still against the law to send it through the U.S. mail. But the I-Team found it’s happening across the country every day. News Center 7 dug through the data to see just how much pot was coming into the Buckeye State. We found it’s literally tons of the drug, even though it’s not the main thing investigators are looking for.

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The U.S. Postal Service ships around seven billion packages a year with no telling what’s inside unless postal inspectors have a reason to go looking. “Often we’ll get calls from our carriers or a postmaster at a post office that gets a package that they suspect is narcotics,” said Rick Johnsten with the United States Postal Inspection Service.

Search warrants the I-Team got a hold of outline what they look for: a notable smell, packages that are heavily taped, or have tracking, and are coming from states with more relaxed drug laws. They also get tips from local law enforcement.

One of the agencies they team up with is the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation in central Florida. “Drug traffickers are running a business-like legitimate business and they have logistics operations,” said Ron Stucker with the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation. “And they have to figure out how to transport their product from point A to point B.”

The I-Team obtained records from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that show drug traffickers often use the U.S. mail. Postal Inspectors found more than 54 tons of marijuana nationwide in 2021. More than 1,600 packages were addressed to Ohioans in 2021 with more than 4,600 pounds of pot inside. Those records the I-Team got a hold of show 69% of the pot intercepted coming into Ohio originated from California.

“It’s really low hanging fruit,” said defense lawyer Mark O’Mara. “So, I guess you could find a pound of pot coming to somebody’s house. But there’s much more to focus on.”

O’Mara said people who have packages of marijuana seized are rarely prosecuted unless they’re also dealing in harder drugs like fentanyl, cocaine, and heroin. Those are the main drugs U.S. Postal inspectors told us they’re after even though pot is the number one drug they find. “I would say that it is the majority of our seizures,” Rick Johnsten with the USPIS said.

But when a package is mailed to someone it can be hard to prove they knew it was coming or that they intended to receive it. Law enforcement said that makes prosecutions for just mailing marijuana less likely. “We have to attribute those drugs to somebody,” Ron Stucker with the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation. “And so sometimes it can be difficult.”

“We’re looking to prevent any damage being done or harming society with these dangerous drugs,” Johnsten said. “So, we get as many as we can as often as we can off the street. That’s our main priority.”

In the last three years that data is available (2019-2021) records obtained through the I-Team’s FOIA request show Ohio ranked fifth in the nation for pounds of pot intercepted by U.S. Postal Inspectors. At the federal level, pot is still illegal. But more than 24 states have either legalized or decriminalized marijuana, making it easier to get locally.

The I-Team asked Johnsten what his agency would say to people who ask why postal inspectors still focus on intercepting marijuana with so many states changing their laws surrounding marijuana? “As long as it’s illegal (at the federal level) and we’re told that it’s illegal, we’ll continue to do our jobs to intercept it,” Johnsten said. “Until those laws change that’s what we’ll continue to do.”

Keep in mind, all those tons of pot seized listed in the documents we obtained through our FOIA request only includes the packages U.S. Postal Inspectors caught. So, there could be even more than that being sent and received.