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Massive Colorado-Minnesota weed smuggling ring inspires true crime podcast

To get into the head space of Twin Cities skydiver cum drug smuggler Joe Johnson, freelance reporter Chris Walker jumped out of a plane.

To get into the head space of Twin Cities skydiver cum drug smuggler Joe Johnson, freelance reporter Chris Walker jumped out of a plane. The Syndicate

Drug trafficking isn't necessarily less common in an age when many states are legalizing the recreational use of marijuana.

It's just weirder.

In 2015, a large, unnamed, seemingly amateurish drug ring got caught smuggling thousands of pounds of pot from the legalized paradise of Colorado to the far more restrictive Minnesota. One of the team members – their guy in the sky, Joe Johnson – was a Twin Cities skydiving instructor who would ferry 900 pounds of the stuff at a time in his plane.

This group – with member AKAs like “Crazy Tom,” “Fat Cat,” “Garbage Breath,” and “The Enforcer” – made millions on illicit interstate trafficking when they could have been getting in on a new, exciting, and totally legal market.

Colorado freelance reporter Chris Walker wanted to know why.

In his new podcast, The Syndicate, he gets to know the ragtag members of this massive operation, and tries to get into their heads. What makes a person risk their freedom, even their lives, to get a piece of a seemingly unnecessary black market?

For starters, Walker let Johnson push him out of a plane.

“It seemed like going skydiving would allow me to develop a rapport with him,” he says.

The thought that one faulty parachute could be a very easy way to dispatch a nosy reporter asking questions about your criminal history briefly crossed Walker's mind. He says he had a good time – and, more importantly, he got to know pot-smuggling skydiver Joe Johnson.

The “Syndicate” is the shorthand Walker gave to a group that never named itself. Not coming up with a catchy moniker is actually one of the ways the team stayed off law enforcement’s radar. In the podcast's first episode, we get a quick summary of how Johnson got into the game, along with several high-flying mishaps that might have persuaded other pilots to quit while they were ahead.

But The Syndicate just gets wilder as it goes on – bags of buried cash, games of cat and mouse with federal agents, a failed attempt to go legit, and the machinations of a savvy kingpin “holding all the puppet strings,” until the wheels fall off and everything comes crashing down like a skydiving plane that’s suddenly run out of gas. (Actually, that happened, too.)

Drug trafficking, Walker says, hasn't just survived in the age of legalized weed in many states. It's thriving. It occurs to him that many large-scale operations actually got away with it – went legit, and left their madcap drug-running days behind them.

“How many of these types of smuggling stories are there out there that we don’t know about?” he asks.

To Walker, this story is “absolutely” an argument for federal legalization. When drugs are available in one state and not another, there will always, always be the incentive to try something arguably bold and inarguably illegal. If weed’s going to be legal, it’s got to be legal – and accessible, and not prohibitively expensive – everywhere.

Otherwise, there’ll always be another Joe Johnson out there willing to take the plunge.

The Syndicate’s first two episodes are out as of earlier this week, wherever you get your podcasts. You can also check out the show’s website, and this video trailer.