Cortland police find 59 pounds, 1,000 marijuana vape cartridges

The City of Cortland Police Department (Photo: Provided)

A police taskforce seized 59 pounds of marjuana and 1,000 marijuana vape cartridges worth $350,000 as part of a week-long investigation, the city police department said today. That’s enough marijuana for all 18,000 city residents to smoke three joints.

Two city men — Michael G. Bay, 21, and John B. Aspinwall, 36, — were arrested on felony marijuana charges for their roles in a conspiracy that shipped marijuana and THC vape cartridges through a delivery service from Southern California to residences in the city, police said.

The vape cartridges, which are used in electronic cigarettes, contain 60 percent more psychoactive THC than traditional marijuana — and were marketed to children, said city police Lt. Michael Strangeway. 

The investigation began on July 22 when an alert worker marked and set aside three delivery packages as suspicious, according to a news release. Two of the packages were addressed to a fictitious name and were to be sent to 53 Clayton Ave., according to police. The third package was also addressed to a nom de guerre and was headed to 23 Helen Ave., the release notes.

The worker either recognized the addresses and realized the wrong names were included in the address or became suspicious after realizing the package tracking numbers were raising alerts, Strangeway said. Either way, police were called and a drug-sniffing state police dog indicated to its handler there were drugs inside the packages, according to police.

The packages addressed to 53 Clayton Ave. contained a total of $1,000 marijuana concentrate cartridges, police said. Investigators believe the cartridges were aimed at teens and young adults because the marijuana was flavored in sugary cereal and dessert varieties, Strangeway said.

“I can only assume that with names and flavors like “Cookies” and “Fruit Loops,” he said.

The cartridges have a street value of at least $48,000 to $62,000 — and potentially up to $80,000, Strangeway said. Cartridges can be purchased on the dark web, the illegal nexus and blackmarket of the internet, for $12 a cartridge, he noted. That leaves a large profit potential for a dealer: the chance to quadruple, quintuple or even octuple an initial investment. 

The third package addressed to 23 Helen Ave. contained 15 pounds of prepared, green marijuana worth between $48,000 to $62,000 on the street, Strangeway said.

The next day, July 23, three more packages arrived and were set aside as suspicious, according to the release.

The fourth package contained 20 pounds of marijuana, worth up to $89,600 on the street, was addressed to 15 Hubbard Street, police said. The fifth package had 15 pounds of marijuana, was headed to 23 Helen Ave. and was worth up to $62,000, according to the release. The last package was addressed to 10 Duane St., contained 10 pounds of marijuana and had a street value of up to $44,800, city police noted.

Like the first three packages, the packages intercepted on July 23 were all addressed to fake names, Strangeway said.

With the aid of the Cortland County Sheriff’s Office, state police and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, City Police seized 1,000 vape cartridges and 59 pounds of marijuana in two days. The plant marijuana was enough to make about 54,000 hand-rolled cigarettes and was worth up to $310,000 on the street, according to the news release.

“As far as quantity of marijuana, this is the largest single seizure I’ve seen,” said Strangeway, an almost 25-year veteran of the city police force.

Police arrested Bay, who lives at the 23 Helen Ave. residence where two of the packages were to be sent, for first-degree attempted possession of marijuana and tampering with physical evidence, felonies.

Aspinwall lives next door to the Hubbard Street residence where the fourth marijuana package was bound. Police charged Aspinwall, of 13 Hubbard St., with three felonies: third-degree criminal possession of a weapon, fourth-degree conspiracy and third-degree criminal possession of marijuana. He was also charged with misdemeanor seventh-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance.

Detectives determined Aspinwall conspired with a third man to possess concentrated cannabis, Strangeway said. That man’s identity was unavailable and he was not arrested as of today.

Police used a warrant to search Aspinwall’s home and discovered 13 ounces of leaf marijuana and a small amount of marijuana concentrate, as well as an illegal police nightstick.

The nightstick would ordinarily net a misdemeanor charge, but Aspinwall was arrested with a felony weapons charge as he was previously convicted of a crime, Strangeway said.

The Cortland Police Department police prevents officers from discussing criminal histories of defendants. 

California connection

All of the packages came from the San Diego or Chula Vista area of Southern California, Strangeway said. Chula Vista is eight miles from the Mexican border and eight miles from San Diego, according to Google Maps.

The return addresses on the packages were fictitious, but officers were able to confirm the boxes came from the Southern California areas.

“They were just random addresses. They have nothing to do with the identity of the sender,” Strangeway said of the boxes and their labels. “But with their tracking history I can confirm they were all from Southern California.”

Investigators also believe the packages were all dispatched from the same sender, he said.

“The way we’re identifying the sender is through the packaging, because they’re packaged in a very unique way,” Strangeway said.

The ultimate recipient of the packages is also often not the people that live at the residences the boxes are shipped to, Strangeway noted.

“They (the wholesale dealers) use these people to, what we say, ‘catch packages,’” he said. The ones who live at the residences or pick them up off a porch, do so for a third party in exchange for money or drugs, Strangeway explained. This obscures the identity of the person who will receive the drug shipment and the total amount that person is receiving, he said. “Also popular is sending packages to vacant houses,” Strangeway said.

Teens targeted

The child-friendly flavored marijuana cartridges are very potent and, potentially, very profitable to dealers, police noted.

While high-quality marijuana plants have THC levels under 20 percent, the concentrated cannabis cartridges have THC levels over 80 percent, according to the release. Teens that have purchased similar cartridges report to city police they have purchased the cartridges for $80 a piece — a potential net profit of $68, Strangeway noted.

There were two cases of Cortland Junior Senior High School students purchasing cannabis cartridges last school year, said School Resource Officer and Patrolman Rob “Durango” Reyngoudt. But Reyngoudt suspects there’s many more cases.

Unlike marijuana cigarettes, cartridges don’t emmitt a tell-tale burnt odor, he said. “And the child-friendly flavors — there’s more of a draw, more of an appeal to younger people,” Reyngoudt said.

Cartel connections?

The large-scale drug distribution likely indicates the marijuana came from and financially supported a larger criminal network, perhaps one originating in Mexico, Strangeway said.

“Marijuana sales of this magnitude — I would say it’s likely that they fund larger criminal enterprises,” Strangeway said. Large quantities of all types of drugs, from marijuana to crystal meth, often come from Mexico, he said. “I would say the vast majority ultimately come from Mexico,” Strangeway said.

The large amount of marijuana also suggests to investigators it would be passed on to mid-level distributors, he said.

“This wasn’t possession for personal recreation or even possession for low-level hand to hand sales,” Strangeway said. “Possession at this scale indicates an intent to distribute to other mid-level suppliers and ultimately trickle down to street level dealers.”

The unique partnership between the Cortland Police Department and the Upsate-based DEA offices aided local officers in this large drug investigation, he said.

“The experience investigators gained through their partnership and affiliation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Task Force enabled investigators to quickly and effectively respond to this large-scale drug conspiracy,” Strangeway said. “The city police officers have maintained a sworn DEA task force officer for nearly three years now.”