Marijuana is legal in an increasing number of states, but it remains illegal in the others and under federal law.
That means cannabis busts are an occasional cost of doing business on the black market. In reality, the government catches almost none of the marijuana that flows across the country, but they do catch some.
Drug seizures range from the petty to the massive, and they all come with potentially serious penalties. Here are the five biggest marijuana busts of all time.
1. 2009: A bevy of law enforcement officers seized more than 330,000 marijuana plants, an amount valued at roughly $1 billion. The pot was grown in Fresno County, Cal., a rural area notorious for its tough cannabis laws. The actual bust dragged on for more than a week, with the arrest of 82 people tied to Mexican cartels.
“Fresno County is roughly the size of Connecticut, and the drug traffickers target these areas because they know there is not that significant of a law-enforcement presence,” Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims told CNN.
2. 2009: Federal agents nabbed roughly 50,000 pounds of cannabis, or 25 tons. Agents raided a “nondescript” home in Queens, N.Y., as part of an investigation into a Canadian drug-trafficking ring. Farmers in British Columbia grew the marijuana in hydroponic farms, then smuggled it into the United States from Eastern Canada. Agents arrested 10 people.
“These guys were doing it very big,” a New York City police officer told the New York Daily News. “The street value of what we seized is $150 million.”
3. 2007: In this massive haul, law enforcement seized more than 13 tons of cannabis that originated with the Sinaloa cartel of Mexico. Agents also took nearly 10,000 pounds of cocaine, more than 700 pounds of methamphetamine, more than 10 pounds of heroin, and more than $45 million. Known as “operation Imperial Emperor,” this bust led to more than 400 arrests.
4. 1984: The fourth-biggest pot bust in American history occurred off the coast of San Diego when the U.S. Coast Guard boarded a yacht and found 13 tons of the drug hidden on board. As officers stepped onto the boat, a passenger famously gave up the game: “Boy, are you guys in for a big surprise,” Phillip Kashnig allegedly said during the bust. “This boat is loaded with marijuana.”
5. 2007: Houston saw the fifth-largest marijuana bust. Police seized almost 10 tons of cannabis stashed inside two school buses parked in a rural area near the city. Federal agents said the haul apparently started with a Mexican cartel and was worth $13 million on the street.
Of course, these busts represent only a tiny fraction of the U.S. marijuana supply. The vast majority of product makes it across oceans, borders, and state lines with no trouble. If it didn’t, there would be no drug users in America.