Forget the pills, dealers go for ‘high-grade California weed'
Published: Friday, January 27, 2012 at 3:25 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 27, 2012 at 3:25 p.m.
Florida’s efforts to reduce illegal prescription drug deals are paying off and pushing dealers to an old-school product, according to the Gainesville-Alachua County Drug Task Force.
Task force members from the Gainesville Police Department and Alachua County Sheriff’s Office said their latest major case is evidence that drug dealers are looking for an alternative product to offer and that many have found it in high-quality marijuana.
“We have seen firsthand that the new legislation is effective,” said GPD Lt. Matt Nechodom, a member of the task force. “A lot of folks trafficking in pills knew their names would be traced when the drug database came into play, so they got out of that.”
Under the new state law, pharmacists enter prescription information into the Florida Prescription Monitoring Program database. According to Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office, the database makes it possible to find those abusing prescription pills.
As an alternative, some dealers have gone back into marijuana sales that were once a profit mainstay in the drug world, said Sheriff’s Office Lt. Whitney Burnett.
“They realized that their profit margins could increase with marijuana, and the prison sentences would be less than if they were charged with prescription pills,” Burnett said.
In the recent case, which the task force has been working on for the past six months, marijuana was seized while being shipped into North Florida. It was worth as much as $40,000 when it arrived and would have been worth even more when it was sold at the street level, investigators said.
Penalties are relatively low for large amounts of marijuana compared with prison terms for dealing pills, said State Attorney’s Office spokesman Spencer Mann.
Under current state laws, trafficking in as much as a ton of marijuana carries a mandatory minimum sentence of three years in prison and a $25,000 fine, Mann said. However, trafficking in 200 grams to 400 grams of prescription pills carries a mandatory minimum sentence of seven years in prison and a $100,000 fine. The number of pills in a gram varies widely, depending on the drug, he said.
Burnett said the task force’s work on the marijuana ring sprang from prescription drug cases being investigated in the High Springs area about a year ago. As the task force worked on various cases, members started seeing more involvement with marijuana and less involvement with pills.
The work led the task force to obtain search warrants in October. While executing those warrants, task force members said they seized $205,000 in cash, 18 guns and 8 pounds of marijuana.
Talking to those involved, task force members said they began to recognize the scope of the marijuana scheme.
“We were working with the State Attorney’s Office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and we decided to wait until we had followed up on all the information before (we served) arrest warrants,” Nechodom said.
Task force members said they uncovered an ongoing scheme to ship high-grade marijuana from California into Alachua and Marion counties.
Burnett and Nechodom said the scheme involved bringing several pounds of marijuana at a time to various addresses in North Florida using commercial shippers. An average of five to 10 pounds a week was being sent to North Florida, according to task force records.
The packages would be delivered to places in and around Gainesville and Ocala. Once the packages arrived, co-conspirators would meet — often in the High Springs area — to divide the marijuana into smaller amounts for retail sales at prices of $3,200 to $4,000 a pound, depending on variety and quality.
“This was high-grade California weed,” Nechodom said. “It wasn’t that Mexican ditch weed that sells for $800 a pound.”
The first suspect arrested as part of the alleged scheme was Ernesto Candido Rodriguez, 51, of Los Angeles. He was charged with money laundering and unlawful use of a telephone as well as violating the state’s anti-racketeering law.
According to court records, task force members learned Rodriguez had been looking around the region for a place to open a furniture business. Investigators said he wanted to be able to use that business to ship in larger quantities of high-grade marijuana from California.
This week, investigators arrested three more people in connection with the scheme.
Allen Bryce Carlisle, 31, of Trenton, and Lauren Elizabeth Black, 23, and her boyfriend, Anthony Stephen Rizzotto, 26, both of High Springs, were charged with illegal use of telephones and violating the anti-racketeering law.
Burnett and Nechodom said additional arrests are possible as the investigation continues.
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