Collateral impact: the unintended consequences of legalizing the pot | Colorado Springs News


Four years after recreational marijuana went legal for sale in Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper said the state’s black market for marijuana was shrinking and predicted it would “largely disappear” in a few years.

But new statistics show arrests for black-market pot production rose 380% in 2014-16, and Colorado law enforcement says they are fighting a crop boom. illegal marijuana by sometimes violent criminal groups that make millions. dollars by exporting what they grow.

The Colorado Department of Public Safety, which tracks various statistics related to marijuana, found that arrests in the manufacturing sector rose from 126 in 2014 to 476 in 2016, according to new state data obtained by The Gazette. Illegal manufacturing encompasses the unlicensed manufacture of products containing THC, as well as large, hidden cultivation operations where the number of plants far exceeds that permitted by state law.

These figures have not yet been officially reported. But Jack Reed, the state official who compiles them, has confirmed the dramatic increase in arrests for illegal crops. Reed deferred to law enforcement officials for the interpretation of the new data.

Other law enforcement agencies are also reporting a growing element of violence in the illegal marijuana trade.

Denver counts seven of its 56 homicides in 2017 as being linked to marijuana.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Denver classified a third of its 2017 marijuana cases as violent. Other agencies regularly report seizing firearms from marijuana busts.

Overall, marijuana cases in state courts have fallen by about 80% since voters legalized recreational marijuana in November 2012, with sales starting in 2014. Most officials attribute this number to the dramatic drop in arrests for simple possession. There were 9,789 total cases in 2012, compared to 1,650 total cases in 2016, and a peak of 6% to 1,759 cases in 2017.

However, criminal marijuana cases increased steadily from 2015 with 579 cases; 2016 saw 807 felony cases, and there were 901 in 2017. Possession of an ounce or less of marijuana is legal, while possession of 10 ounces or more is a felony.

This complicates the application, as a single plant grown on site can produce up to 2 pounds of leaves and flowers, officials say.

No statewide system tracks marijuana-related violence. But the evidence for the human toll keeps increasing. In Elbert County, two men recently felled each other in an apparent feud over a large illegal harvest.

Just last week, a Jefferson County jury convicted a man of murdering a black market dealer who tried to sell him a pound of pot on Craigslist.

By nature, black market sales are impossible to quantify with precision, but even as arrests increase, black market sales appear to be a fraction of legal sales in Colorado.

From 2014 to 2017, sales of recreational and medical marijuana increased from $ 683 million per year to $ 1.5 billion last year. By comparison, Colorado’s biggest bust in 2017 billed 62 people and grossed 4,000 pounds, which authorities say could be worth $ 16 million in states where marijuana is smuggled.

A pound of Colorado marijuana can fetch $ 4,000 on the East Coast, a Front Range attorney said, citing the lure of the illegal market.

When Hickenlooper said the tide of black market production was receding, he was responding to a threat from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to crack down on states that legalize marijuana sales.

He championed the success of Colorado’s legal dispensaries, adding, “I think in the next two or three years the black market may never be zero, but it will largely be gone. “

Mark Bolton, the governor’s marijuana adviser, does not dispute that arrests for illegal manufacturing have increased. But he said Hickenlooper had taken “significant steps to get rid of black market activity,” ranging from supporting legislation that reduced the legal number of plants per household to strengthening law enforcement budgets to the surveys.

Law enforcement officials, especially Republicans, accuse the state’s Democratic governor of downplaying the side effects of legalization. They argue that illegal basement businesses are thriving under their noses in a state that allows small amounts to be grown for personal use.

“It’s out of control,” said Ray Padilla, a drug agent who had just returned from a bust of 20 houses that yielded thousands of plants and several hundred pounds of harvested marijuana. “We are probably spending more assets on marijuana now than we ever have.”

Padilla, a bald 42-year-old sporting a beard, earrings and jeans, heads the Colorado Drug Investigators Association.

He and other law enforcement officials say the lure of millions of marijuana has drawn armed growers from places as far away as Florida, California and Mexico, as well as local black market traders who installed elaborate lighting and irrigation systems in suburban homes.

“I have encountered more guns in places where marijuana is used than any other type of drug,” Padilla said.

In El Paso County, the sheriff’s office says violence is becoming common in the illegal market.

Last month, a man was stacked and tied up by assailants who broke into his home and stole his marijuana, wallet and truck. In December, a man who had hidden hundreds of pounds of marijuana in his house was shot dead on his doorstep.

The victim has disappeared and an arrest warrant has been issued.

In 27 raids last year, Sheriff Bill Elder said, “We have seized weapons from almost all of them.

Part of it is to blame Colorado’s high potency marijuana.

“Colorado exports the best marijuana in the country, and it’s the number one exporter,” Elder said. “We produce some really good weed.”

In the 18th Judicial District, based in Arapahoe County, Republican District Attorney George Brauchler laments that law enforcement has not tracked violence in marijuana-related crimes since legalization.

Brauchler, who is seeking the GOP nomination to run for state attorney general, said he was aware of at least nine homicide cases, not to mention the double murder in rural county of Elbert.

In November, an illegal cultivator who lived in Elbert County and a smuggler shot and killed each other in a house where more than 50 pounds of marijuana was stored, according to Clinton McKinzie, Brauchler’s chief deputy.

Prosecutors saw marijuana seized in everything from Chinese cans and car tires to duffel bags.

In addition to the murders, “we have suffered some torture” by thieves demanding marijuana, McKinzie said. “A guy was burned with a blowtorch on the soles of his feet, his thighs and his back.”

In Denver, police counted seven cases of marijuana-related homicides last year, with five open investigations remaining.

In one of the two cases going through the criminal justice system, a gang broke into Dominique Cozy’s home on South Delaware Street, looking for marijuana and other drugs, and shot him dead while an attempted theft, according to court records.

Six young men have been charged with murder and a teenage girl will be tried in juvenile court for allegedly helping them.

Cozy lived two doors down from a dispensary, Mighty Tree, and was a regular recreational customer, according to employee Steven Shorter.

He described Cozy as a good neighbor who collected trash to help the emergence of a largely industrial area. “Nice boy. Nice behavior. I always had a nice word,” he said. “I don’t see how anyone had a problem with him.”

On West Evans Avenue in Denver, a shootout broke out in a car after an argument over the quality of marijuana and marijuana resin at a black market sale. The buyer, the seller and the seller’s girlfriend all fired with weapons. A bullet in the chest killed the buyer. The seller, James Wheeler, and his girlfriend, Kara Stewart, fled to Chicago, where they were found and arrested.

Last month, Wheeler was sentenced to seven years in federal prison.

In the Jefferson County case concluded this month, the accused, Toussaint Hampton, was convicted of first degree murder for killing the man who tried to sell him a pound of marijuana on Craigslist for 1 $ 700. His co-accused, Kainetray Bell, has pleaded guilty as an accomplice and is expected to be sentenced at the end of the trial.

Recreational use advocates say they support efforts to eliminate illegal growers, provided police respect legally operated dispensaries.

“We believe in the laws,” said Kristi Kelly, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group in Colorado. “I hope all of this will stabilize eventually.”

Kelly suggested that budget increases for law enforcement could be a factor in the growth of marijuana seizures.

Beth McCann, the Democratic District Attorney for Denver, is less worried about illegal cultivators than some fellow Republican elected officials.

McCann praises the dispensaries for adhering to complex state rules and for avoiding violence at their doorstep.

She counts children’s access to marijuana and the opioid and methamphetamine epidemics as her top drug concerns, followed by illegal producers.

“I’m pretty neutral,” she said of the legalization. “The tax money certainly helps us. It is a lot of money. We use some of that money for drug treatment.”

John Walsh, the US attorney in Denver at the start of recreational sales, described contraband as a cause for concern but not panic.

“Has there been an influx of people from out of state? Yes. Has there been an effective response from law enforcement? Yes, too. It’s an ongoing problem.” , did he declare.

He credits the Hickenlooper administration for “taking it very seriously” and for cooperating with federal efforts to curb black market transactions.

“It’s a new world. Colorado is at the forefront,” he said. “We are doing more than any other state to try to put in place a really effective regulatory system.”

Data reporter Burt Hubbard contributed to this story.

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