(Denver Post file)

Is the country drowning in cheap, potent Colorado weed?

It’s become a familiar lament in the age of legal marijuana: Weed from places like Colorado and Washington is making its way all over the country, creating headaches for law enforcement.

Nebraska and Oklahoma recently sued Colorado over the state’s legal marijuana market (the Supreme Court declined to take up the case). Sheriffs in neighboring states have been complaining about the strain that Colorado weed is putting on tight law enforcement budgets. A recent USA Today story described a “flow of high-quality marijuana out of Colorado” and into other states.

It may seem as if the country is drowning in cheap, potent Colorado weed. But federal datasets tell a more complicated story: Nationwide, federal marijuana trafficking offenses are on the decline.

The United States Sentencing Commission (USSC), which compiles data on federal law enforcement efforts, recently released its latest drug trafficking statistics. And they show that federal marijuana trafficking offenses have fallen sharply since 2012, the year that Colorado and Washington residents voted to legalize marijuana. The decline continues through 2015, the most recent year for which data is available.

“The number of marijuana traffickers rose slightly over time until a sharp decline in fiscal year 2013 and the number continues to decrease,” the report says. Meanwhile, trafficking in other drugs, notably meth and heroin, appears to be on the rise.

Now, these numbers don’t necessarily contradict reports that Colorado weed is making its way elsewhere. “The vast majority of marijuana-related arrests and prosecutions are made by local and state authorities,” Beau Kilmer, a drug policy researcher with the RAND Corp., said in an email. The USSC data tracks only federal offenses, so even if state and local cops are seeing more marijuana moving between borders, you wouldn’t expect that to show up here.

But the USSC’s numbers do show that at the federal level, marijuana trafficking is becoming less of a problem. It’s not clear why this is happening. Legalization could be reducing demand for black market sales, state prosecutors could have changed how they charge defendants, or there could be another explanation altogether. USSC says their data doesn’t provide enough information to draw a conclusion.

“The Commission tracks data collected and reported by the federal courts regarding federal convictions, without regard to changes in state laws or practices,” said Christine Leonard, Director of Legislative and Public Affairs at the USSC, in an email.

Kilmer says there are three major variables that affect the number of trafficking arrests: “1) efforts made by law enforcement, 2) efforts made by the smugglers to conceal the contraband, and 3) the amount of contraband being shipped. Thus, there could be multiple explanations for the decrease at the federal level.” But he agrees that the USSC data doesn’t point to which of these are behind the decline in marijuana trafficking offenses.

The Drug Enforcement Administration, which enforces federal drug trafficking laws, did not respond to questions about the data.

There’s no doubt that some marijuana from places such as Colorado and Washington is being illegally sent elsewhere. But if this were truly a serious, nationwide problem, you’d expect federal marijuana trafficking offenses to be rising. Instead, they’re falling. This suggests that concerns about interstate marijuana smuggling could be overblown.