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Colorado's Illegal Marijuana Grow Operations Are Straining Local Law Enforcement

Douglas County Sheriff's Office
An illegal grow documented by the Douglas County Sheriff's Office in 2018.

In a basement in Pueblo, Colorado, Capt. Leroy Mora with the local sheriff's department  shuffles through the artificial tropics of an illegal marijuana grow. In this stark-white room, a cobweb of electrical wiring powers rows of blowing fans and warm grow lights. 11 marijauna plants the size of Christmas trees are fed through a hydroponic system.

This, says Mora, is your typical illegal grow room ⁠— they’re almost always in the basement and out of sight from neighbors. At first glance, this one appears to be within state regulations, that since 2018 has limited the number of cannabis plants at a private residence to 12. But in the next room over, there’s a nursery filled with saplings.

Combating Colorado’s black market for marijuana has become a relentless effort for law enforcement across the state. Data from the Colorado Department of Public Safety shows thousands of pounds of weed leave the state each year, bound for places like Florida, where cannabis is still prohibited and sells for three to four times the local price.

These grow operations often loop in other types of organized crime. And that’s problematic for rural areas, where resources to pay for these investigations may be limited, or nonexistent. 

“I think it’s added a lot of work to what we do,” said Mora. “We’ve had instances where we would find an illegal grow but ever since it became legal we find it much more.”

On this morning in late September, 30 officers have teamed up with local firefighters and federal agents to serve warrants on three homes they suspect are illegally growing marijuana. According to Mora, it’s usually a neighbor who, having seen visitors come and go at odd hours or smelling the distinct odor of weed, tips off investigators. Then after weeks of surveillance, a caravan of unmarked cars and a team of SWAT officers arrive unannounced at their doorstep.

Credit Esther Honig
Outside a home in the suburbs of Pueblo, Colorado that was raided for illegally manufacturing marijuana.

The first location we visit is an unassuming, single story home with a Fisher Price playset out back and pet chickens.

“They try to just intermix with the residents and be as normal as they can,” said Mora.  “But there’s a lot of anomalies that make them stick out.”

Like unusually high utility bills, or extra air conditioning units and blocked out windows. Investigators never know just how many plants they’ll find until they get inside. The more plants, the more severe the criminal charge, which ranges from a misdemeanor up to a high-level felony.

If you ask Mora and other members of law enforcement, this is not something they thought they’d be dealing with after Amendment 64 was passed by voters in 2012.

“We thought we’d have more issues with the actual dispensaries.” said Mora. “But the state actually does pretty good regulations on that.”

Instead, they're stuck chasing these illegal growers, who stand to make an immense profit, especially since they avoid paying costly state regulations, like product testing, licensing and a 15% excise tax.

Based on numbers from the Colorado Bureau of Investigations and the 18th judicial district, we estimate that more than 100,000 plants were seized statewide during the last fiscal year. A study from the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice suggests charges for producing marijuana have increased 42% since legalization in 2012.

There’s no data on how much this is costing Colorado and because many of these cases are handled at the city and county level, they’re not accurately reflected in federal crime statistics. But since 2017 the state has spent $6 million annually in grant funding to help law enforcement take down these operations.

In addition, Dan Volz with the Colorado Bureau of Investigations says they’ve created a special task force in the last year that assists law enforcement in rural areas to go after illegal grows.

“I think that it’s a strain on all law enforcement quite frankly,” said Volz.

With an annual budget of $1.8 million, Volz and his team travel across the state to either carry out the investigation or lend manpower for things like surveillance and evidence collection. In general, says Volz, these are difficult cases and dismantling the illegal grow sites takes manual labor.  

“Some agencies are really struggling for resources and infrastructure,” he said.

Back in the Pueblo basement, officers are zipping into hazmat suits, ready to rip out the 37 plants found inside. Their protective gear is a precaution against the illegal and hazardous pesticides that are sometimes used.

Credit Esther Honig / KUNC
Inside a legal grow in Garden City, Colorado.

The suspect, a 48-year-old man, is led out of the house in handcuffs while still wearing his pajamas. Investigators would later find he’s from Florida with alleged ties to Cuba. Many law enforcement officials interviewed for this story believe that’s a common pattern in these cases and might suggest a larger criminal organization.

As the investigations captain, this is Mora’s eighth illegal marijuana operation in the last month. His department estimates that with the cost of overtime and equipment, each one cost just over $2,000.

“Yeah, it’s kind of frustrating when you think you’re getting ahead of the game and you’re really not,” he said. 

He says it can feel like a game of whack-a-mole. And as long as marijuana is legal in Colorado, but federally prohibited, law enforcement experts agree that the black market will continue to thrive.

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