MONTCALM COUNTY, Mich. — Michigan State Police (MSP) is seeing more people grow and sell black-market marijuana in West Michigan.
The motive is to make money and do it as cheaply as possible without proper safety procedures.
MSP's Marijuana Tobacco Investigation Section got 400 tips statewide last year that led to illegal cannabis investigations.
This is a number that has been increasing every year over the last four years.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of marijuana product was seized recently from illegal marijuana grow operation spanning several counties in West Michigan.
If you add in the land and equipment used, including hundreds of growing lamps also seized, the total value of the operation is close to a million dollars.
"What we're finding is that a lot of the illegal marijuana growing operations are individuals or groups of people trying to circumvent the current laws and avoid paying taxes on the product, as well as avoid the licensing process to become a legal dispensary here in West Michigan," said Det. 1st Lt. Andrew Foster with Michigan State Police.
MSP is finding the individuals are paying cash for vacant land or houses to set up shop and grow the marijuana.
We're not talking about a few plants; rather hundreds and thousands at a time.
"Sometimes it's the property, the availability of vacant land in areas of West Michigan and Northern Michigan, as well as the soil. The climate is good for producing and manufacturing marijuana."
In this recent investigation, the money was being shipped out of state to the east coast and possibly to a higher-level organization.
Medical Marijuana Investigations
An undercover unit commander with MSP's Marijuana Tobacco Investigation Section says they've also done medical marijuana investigations.
"They have what we refer to as "overages" so they're growing way more than they're having. Let's say they're allowed to grow based on their medical card 72 plants and we go and conduct an investigation and they have 1,000."
Unlicensed and 'Web-based' storefronts
Other aspects of the black market include unlicensed storefronts, such as vape or CBD stores, distributing or selling.
"Occasionally we'll find something where we can go in and make purchases under the guise of 'gifting' so they'll present a small item or sticker and you're getting the product of cannabis flower as a gift of the sale, but the sale might be for 40 and 50 bucks based on the weight or what kind of strain you're getting or potency."
'Web-based' storefronts will also operate online and through social media doing deliveries.
Both the walk-in and web-based storefronts are 30 to 40% of the Marijuana Tobacco Investigation Section's work and have been located in Grand Rapids, Holland, Muskegon, and Mount Pleasant.
Because this marijuana is unregulated, it can be dangerous to the public.
"If it's laced with other things like fentanyl or they're using some type of chemical to help grow that product. It's toxic. Depends on what you put in there."
Why is the black market thriving in Michigan?
This undercover detective believes the state's legal market isn't fully established compared to others.
"We're early in that process and people take advantage of laws so there's an opportunity to make money. Greed is feeding that and then it's just an opportunity for those part of that market to make a choice to purchase from the regulatory side."
Foster says buying black-market marijuana encourages the behavior to circumvent the law.
It's up to consumers to choose the best quality that's not cheaper or more convenient, but safer.
State Tax Revenue Loss
Lastly, how much money is the state losing out in tax revenue with these operations?
The undercover detective said it's hard to quantify because black market operations are underreporting or not reporting their taxes at all.