By Joseph Serna
Michael Vechell had already drawn the attention of an airline worker and two passengers at Los Angeles International Airport by the time he was confronted by police.
Waiting to board his Philadelphia-bound flight with his dog Odie, Vechell had sparked concern when he sidled up to another passenger and asked if she wanted to join his “drug smuggling ring,” authorities say.
Although Vechell told LAX police it was just a misunderstanding, officers demanded to see his checked baggage. Inside, they found nearly 70 pounds of vacuum-sealed marijuana bundled into packages labeled “T-shirts,” “cold weather” and “sexy pants.”
More than a year after California legalized the recreational use of cannabis, trafficking arrests like Vechell’s have surged 166% at LAX, according to arrest records obtained by the Los Angeles Times.
Emboldened by legalization and facing only light punishment if captured, more and more smugglers are taking to the friendly skies in an effort to escape California’s glutted cannabis market, according to authorities, marijuana industry experts and a lawyer who represents accused smugglers. As a result, the world’s fourth-busiest airport is now an expanding hub in the illegal export of marijuana, they say.
“This is normal procedure for these guys, and I would say 29 out of 30 times they make it through without a problem,” said Bill Kroger Jr., a 20-year criminal defense lawyer who specializes in marijuana cases and who represented Vechell.
Authorities at LAX say they are encountering more and more airline passengers who are carrying small amounts of pot for personal use, but the number of checked bags stuffed entirely full of marijuana has soared as well. Police in Oakland and Sacramento say they are seeing the same thing.
“We intercept large quantities of marijuana regularly,” said Sgt. Ray Kelly of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, which has jurisdiction over Oakland International Airport. “We find it in about 50-pound quantities … the carry-on rate for luggage. I would imagine we’re only intercepting some of it, not all of it.”