125 pounds of pot stuffed in suitcases seized in traffic stop near Jacksonville airport: FHP

Investigators believe marijuana was flown into Jacksonville from West Coast

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – More than 100 pounds of marijuana stuffed inside a half-dozen suitcases were seized during a traffic stop late Wednesday evening near Jacksonville International Airport, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.

According to an arrest report, a trooper pulled over a Dodge Durango on Dixie Clipper Drive for dark window tint and detected a strong odor of cannabis coming out of the vehicle.

Troopers said that after a K-9 positively alerted to the presence of drugs, they searched the vehicle and found 108 vacuum-sealed bags filled with 125 pounds of pot inside six suitcases. Troopers said there were also baggage claim tickets connected to the luggage.

According to the arrest report, three men were inside of the vehicle, one of whom said he was just there to pick the other two up, and those two men were arrested.

Artez Wards, 27, and Michael Lewis, 28, both face felony charges of marijuana trafficking and smuggling.

Investigators believe the marijuana was flown into Jacksonville from the West Coast, and this wasn’t the first time authorities have recovered dozens of pounds of marijuana in the area of JIA.

Last month, a man who was pulled over by FHP for speeding near JIA was found with 60 pounds of marijuana inside his rental car, troopers said.

Last April, when the Drug Enforcement Administration suspected there was some marijuana in luggage on a flight arriving at JIA, a K-9 alerted on luggage that held 40 pounds of pot, investigators said.

Jacksonville DEA Assistant Special Agent in Charge Mike Dubet says there is a big demand in Northeast Florida for hydroponic marijuana made in California, where it’s legal to grow and use.

“That marijuana is more potent and provides a more intense high, and that’s what the customers are looking for,” Dubet said.

That high-grade marijuana smuggled into Jacksonville sells for about $2,000 per pound, so the 125 pounds of pot seized this week by FHP had a street value of about $250,000.

Demand for some of the marijuana grown in California is not just limited to Northeast Florida. An undercover DEA agent working out of the Savannah, Georgia, office says Southeast Georgia is also experiencing large quantities of high-grade marijuana being smuggled in.

“It’s something we’re dealing with on a large number of our cases — high-grade marijuana being sent from California to Southeast Georgia,” the agent told News4JAX by phone. “The customers are predominantly only looking for certain strains.”

And while there is a debate over whether marijuana should be legalized for recreational use in Florida and Georgia, News4JAX crime and safety expert Ken Jefferson says this expensive, high-grade marijuana — like any other illegal drug — can come with gun violence.

“There is always the threat of shootouts between people dealing in drugs like this,” Jefferson said.

“The violence goes hand-in-hand with all drug deals, including the marijuana,” Dubet said. “Both dealers and customers arrive at the scene with handguns and other weapons to protect themselves. These are deals where people are sometimes robbing each other for either the marijuana or the money used to purchase the marijuana.”

Investigators say medical marijuana, which is legal in Florida and Georgia, has nowhere near the amount of THC in the weed that’s being smuggled into those states.

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