Sheriffs, Lawmakers Start To Make A Dent In Colorado’s Marijuana Black Market

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A dozen dark-colored SUV’s and pickups paraded down a dirt road in Eastern Colorado on an early April Thursday morning, kicking up dust in their wake. The convoy’s destination was a two-story suburban home, with green siding, white doors, and a sweeping view of Pikes Peak in the distance.

The El Paso County Sheriff’s Department were here following a tip about what could be a sizeable illegal marijuana grow.

About five years after Colorado legalized recreational marijuana, some law enforcement leaders say the state still has a thriving black market. That’s particularly true in El Paso County, which includes Colorado Springs and a large swath of the Eastern Plains.

While the black market problem is often assumed to be connected to recreational legalization and the first dispensaries that opened in 2014, El Paso Sheriff Bill Elder traces the problem to Amendment 20, which legalized cannabis for medical use in 2000.

That law allowed people to grow 99 plants in their homes — “a huge loophole” to Elder.

“[People] found that they could grow in Colorado safely and under the guise of Amendment 20 and load it into semis and drive it to the East Coast,” he said. “In Colorado a pound of marijuana is worth roughly $1,500. On the East Coast it’s worth anywhere from $4,000 to $6,000.”

Elder calls marijuana legalization a “failed experiment,” in part because the county is spending so much of its resources tracking down illegal grows.

There are about 650 illegal grows in the county now, he said, compared to 100 just a few years ago. Elder has been along on several busts himself, and he’s seen plants that are 8 feet tall, with stalks thicker than a soda can that needed a chainsaw to cut them down.

So far in 2018, the county has executed 64 search warrants, led by Deputy Jeff Schulz. They’ve seized 5,252 plants and 786 pounds of processed marijuana, mostly in the rural part of the county. Schulz estimated he does about three operations a week, and about 60 percent of the time he encounters weapons, though he said he’s never been shot at.

Investigators load marijuana plants onto a Colorado National Guard truck outside a suspected illegal grow operation in north Denver, April 14, 2016.

P. Solomon Banda/AP

Elder said the county is not targeting “grows that are feeding the Colorado medical or retail” market. Instead the targets are the “grows that are shipping vast amounts of marijuana out of state,” he said.

“If it is being sold here and it’s controlled and grown, and the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies monitors that and they track it, we aren’t messing with those [grows],” he added.

The state does not track black market marijuana operations statewide, but El Paso County is not alone. Denver was at the heart of a massive bust in 2017, when the state indicted 74 people and law enforcement agencies seized 4,000 pounds of marijuana. Teller County, which neighbors El Paso to the West, has also found that groups tied to foreign drug cartels grow marijuana in rented homes there, with the intention of distributing it in other U.S. states.

The sheriff’s office in Teller County has received complaints from residents who smell illegal grows in their neighborhoods. They worry about a drain on water and electricity, as well as the potential for hash oil explosions in a part of the state that’s particularly vulnerable to wildfires.

Colorado’s head of public safety, Stan Hilkey, agreed that the medical marijuana laws, combined with the publicity Colorado got for legalizing recreational use, drew people to the state with the intention of growing illegally.

“If you talk to police and sheriffs around the state who run evidence rooms, one of things that was told during the ramp-up of [recreational legalization] was, sheriffs and chiefs will no longer have their evidence rooms filled up with marijuana. What they will tell you is their evidence rooms were filled up with more marijuana post-legalization, simply because there was an uneducated belief out there that there was much more legal about marijuana than what the amendments approved,” Hilkey said.

In the spring, for the first time, the state requested and the legislature granted funding dedicated to cracking down on the black market in partnership with local law enforcement.

El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder.

Rachel Estabrook/CPR News

Lots of agencies, particularly in rural parts of the state, ask for help with investigations, Hilkey said, but they’ve been unable to help. Just about five years into recreational legalization, there are signs things may be changing. The extra $1.2 million for black market enforcement is one. Another, perhaps even more significant change, took effect January 1, 2018. That’s when it became illegal to grow nearly a hundred plants at home, meaning it is harder for people to grow mass quantities under the guise of Amendment 20. The new limit is 12 plants grown at home, or 24 with strict medical exemptions.

The effects of that change — which came about with lobbying from law enforcement — are already being seen in El Paso County, according to Sheriff Elder.

“Now [growers] are leaving in droves because they know we’re coming after them,” he said.

“We’re finding more and more of the known grow houses are vacant. We’re finding more and more children, migrant children, being withdrawn from local school districts. As we execute warrants we’re finding that there is more and more of these homes that are abandoned or — and they never come back. We never see them again.”

Those vacant grow houses include the one on the dirt road that Deputy Schulz’s team investigated in early April. When the sheriff’s department rolled up to the house, they didn’t find any marijuana, only some signs of a former grow operation.

“There’s no active grow. No processed marijuana, no plants. No nothing,” Schulz said outside the house, as his colleagues documented what was left inside.

“This is the first one where we’ve had where there’s been absolutely nothing here whatsoever. In the 60 we’ve done this year so far and 40-some last year, this is the first one where there’s been absolutely nothing at the house.”

But this raid wouldn’t slow up any future action. After his team finished at this house, Deputy Shultz said it was time to head back to the office to work on more marijuana-related search warrants.

By: Rachel Estabrook, Colorado Public Radio

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