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European Authorities Bust International Drug Gang That Bought Art to Launder Profits

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An international drug network shipping cocaine from Latin America, ketamine from Lithuania into the Netherlands, and cannabis smuggled from North Africa through Spain has just been busted by an operation conducted under the jurisdiction of Europol called Eurojust.

Italy’s interior ministry said that they had issued warrants against 31 people—most of whom were Italian nationals. About $150,000 in cash as well as over 150 kilos of illicit drugs were also seized. The bank accounts of two transport companies were also commandeered as they had allegedly been used to launder money from the operations.

The investigation began with the identification of two restauranteurs in Milan suspected of drug trafficking. Participants in the crime network attempted to hide their identities by using characters from films, literature and well-known artists including Obi-Wan Kenobi, Pinocchio, and even the street artist Banksy.

The Future of Coordinated European Drug Busts in The Age of Legalization

Authorities in Europe have not let up on drug investigations or busts, even on the eve of cannabis legalization in several countries. This includes three massive arrests in Spain over the last year. Indeed, Spanish authorities have identified Catalonia, home to Barcelona and the majority of Spain’s cannabis clubs, as the epicenter of Europe’s illegal weed market. Spain is also a major transit point for cocaine shipped in from Latin America and hash from Morocco.

However, the situation allowing such coordination is unlikely to hold without some modification thanks to the movement of cannabis reform across Europe. Indeed, in Spain alone, both mega busts of the last 12 months were of farms spread out over many acres and in situations where the cultivators had previously told police that what they were doing was sanctioned (i.e. growing industrial hemp, which is legal in Spain).

How will international police agencies in Europe be able to investigate sophisticated criminal networks that include cannabis once cannabis starts to become legal across the region?

That question alone is one that the police are also asking, which is why, apart from the driving issue, they have been so anti-reform across Europe.

Cross Border Trade and Changing Regulations

One of the more interesting (or dangerously harrowing) discussions now front and center across Europe is how authorities will be able to tell illegal cannabis from the kind that is bound for legit markets. It is also likely to get very sticky, as the recent bust in Spain proved. Namely, if a company produces a product that is legal in one country and ships it across a border, how safe will it and the receiver be from international attention by Europol?

There are three possible answers to that question.

The first is that legitimate cannabis operations will not be mixed with other drugs—and the chain of title will have been documented clearly.

The second is that legal cannabis distributors and wholesalers in Germany have been receiving shipments of even high THC cannabis flower within Europe for the past several years. That said, most of them, at some point, have also been visited by the local police.

The third is, however, that this entire proposition is about to get more complicated, not less, for both the industry and authorities as of this year. Legalization is setting up a checkerboard of regulations and enforcement problems. Beyond that, a patchwork of regulations complicates this even more. Will it be illegal, in other words, for a producer in Portugal to produce EU GMP cannabis or extract and sell it to an entity in Germany (post legalization) who just intends to sell to the recreational market? How might a newly legit producer in Holland ship to a dispensary in Germany post legalization?

For now, such questions are unanswerable. However, given the unabated zeal of law enforcement in publicizing large busts, and the problems encountered even by legal purveyors so far, expect there to be clashes of the embarrassing and highly litigious kind as legalization in Europe proceeds.

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