Unintended consequences: illegal pot grows surge on the Western Slope

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GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (KJCT) -- Debates about the effects of pot legalization in Colorado usually revolve around tax revenue, incarceration rates, and ease of access for youth. However, in a big social experiment like drug legalization there are bound to be unintended consequences of being one of the first states to take the leap.

Western Colorado law enforcement officials say that Colorado has now become a magnet for criminals coming to take advantage of the state’s marijuana laws.

In early October, investigators said two men from Florida drove up the winding road that follows Plateau Creek from I-70 to the small town of Molina.

According to the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office, the father and son, Charles and Trevaun Faison, had rented a car in Florida and driven across the country based on a tip to rob a marijuana grow operation in Molina for cash and weed.

Investigators said the robbery quickly took a wrong turn and three men on the property were shot.

A little over a week later, a 51-year old Palisade man was shot and killed in different incident related to a large pot grow operation. So far, there have been no arrests in the case.

While the connection between violence and the drug trade is not new, proponents of pot legalization predicted it would reduce crime and eliminate the black market by creating a taxed and regulated system for marijuana.

Law enforcement officials say they are instead seeing a surge in pot-related criminal activity.

Glen Gaasche, supervisor of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration office in Grand Junction, said his agents have had a 1,200 percent increase in their case load in relation to illegal pot grows.

“Legalization was supposed to get rid of the black market – it hasn’t done that – I would estimate that the black market has grown 20 fold since legalization,” said Gaasche.

Gaasche said a flood of criminals – individuals and organized groups – are coming to Colorado to grow pot for transport to other parts of the U.S.

Local law enforcement is also struggling to handle the rising number of illegal grows.

Officials with the Western Colorado Drug Task Force, a partnership among the DEA, the Grand Junction Police Department, and the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office, said they spent 2,265 man-hours on marijuana grow investigations in 2015, compared to 250 hours in 2013 and 50 hours in 2014.

Task force officials said there has been “an explosion in illegal marijuana grows in Mesa County” due to Colorado’s lenient pot grow rules, which they say are far beyond what other states permit.

Oregon, for example, has a limit of four plants per household. California limits plants to six per household, no matter how many people live in the house.

Colorado law allows anyone to grow up to six plants per person; however, medical marijuana caregivers can grow up to 99 plants each. In addition, growers can work together and combine their six-plant allotments into larger grows, creating large-scale warehouse co-ops.

Gaasche said a typical scenario his agents see in the field is a couple of people move to Colorado, rent a house, and start a grow operation. With a Colorado driver’s license and a doctor’s recommendation they can grow 99 plants legally under the current caregiver rules. With average skills, Gaasche said they could harvest about 100 pounds of pot in a year. At $2,000/pound, the growers could get around $200,000. The growers could even “stack” a few of the 99 plant caregiver authorizations and grow hundreds or thousands of plants.

Law enforcement officials say they can’t seriously go after these types of growers unless they can prove intent to transport out of state or catch growers in the act of selling weed illegally on the black market.

“When you see the money that can be made, you see what we are dealing with,” Gaasche said.

He said there has been a 592 percent increase in seizures of pot destined for other states, and a 2,000 percent increase in seizures of mail parcels containing weed destined for other parts of the U.S.

Law enforcement is also dealing with an associated increase in related crimes, such as credit card skimming and home invasions, like the one in Molina.

The sheer amount of marijuana being grown in some of these operations is remarkable, even to veteran law enforcement officials.

In September 2016, the DEA and drug enforcement task force received a tip on a large grow operation near Rifle. They drove up to check it out and saw a large U-Haul truck leaving the property that, “reeked of marijuana – just a cloud of pot smell,” according to Gaasche. They stopped the vehicle, got a search warrant, and found almost 4,000 pounds of pot. Later, they searched the property and found another 2,400 plants.

Officials with the Western Colorado Drug Task Force said they are aware of several groups that have moved into Grand Junction, and then rented and modified homes to grow marijuana on a large scale.

The rental buildings where the illegal grows are located are often destroyed in the process, officials said.

Authorities say many of the houses are filled with mold from the heat and humidity associated with indoor cultivation. The growers also rip out sheetrock, knock down walls, and alter electrical systems to install homemade lighting and HVAC systems, often creating serious fire hazards.

Outdoor grows also use a lot of water, as well as chemicals and pesticides, which goes into the sewer or into the groundwater.

These problems have led counties and municipalities to take steps to rein in grow operations.

Garfield County officials said they were receiving a large number of complaints about the smell coming from some of the large grow operations, so they decided to handle it as a land use and zoning issue with code enforcement instead of immediately treating it as a criminal issue.

In November, the Garfield County Commission established different plant caps depending on the size of the property: 36 plants on large lots (20,000 square feet or more) and 12 plants on smaller ones (less than 20,000 square feet).

The new codes require all grows to be in enclosed locked spaces and prohibit the grows from producing odors or light that can be detected beyond the property.

“We said, ‘Time out, it’s time to have some regulations that can be enforced,” said Garfield County Commissioner John Martin.

Officials with the Garfield County Community Development office said some of the biggest supporters of the new regulations have been legal growers who have been following state standards and going through the proper channels. They said many growers have even called to schedule inspections to see if they are in compliance with the new rules.

“We aren’t looking to arrest everyone growing marijuana. We want them to be conscientious that their neighbors might not like it,” said an official with the Community Development Office, who asked not to be named. “If everyone follows the same rules, it’s a lot easier.”

Governor John Hickenlooper’s office has released a set of proposals to rein in the black market.

Andrew Freedman, the director of marijuana coordination for the state, said Governor Hickenlooper’s proposals establish a limit of 12 pot plants per house and eliminate loopholes that allow the large “co-ops” of recreational growers. The governor also wants to provide more funding to local law enforcement and district attorneys to deal with the increased case load.

“This isn’t an anti-pot initiative. It’s about good governance,” said Freedman. “We are just trying to clean up some of the abuses that have developed.”

Mason Tvert with the Marijuana Policy Project points out that Amendment 64 placed the right of Coloradans to grow pot in the state constitution.

“Adults are granted the right to grow six plants in the constitution,” said Tvert. “So, if 4-6 people are living together and you have regulations that say they can only grow 12 plants, they are restricting their constitutional rights.”

Tvert said the failure to legalize recreational pot sales in parts of the state and in the surrounding states has driven people to the black market.

“There is a reason we don’t see people with illegal whiskey stills in basements and in our national forests,” said Tvert. “We have illegal grows because of the failure of other states to meet the demand for the product in a controlled fashion.”

After the November election, half of the states in the US now have comprehensive medical marijuana laws. About 20 percent of the population lives in a place where they can legally consume weed recreationally. Tvert believes that as more states move to legalization, there will be less people coming to Colorado to grow weed illegally.

Colorado and other states that have already legalized pot may have to pay a short-term price while other states catch up. However, the costs of growing and selling pot in a taxed and regulated system could mean there will always be a black market, even when legalization spreads to more states.

The experts say Colorado will have to address these questions as we evaluate the benefits, as well as the consequences, in the legalization of pot.

Illegal indoor grow operation. Photo: Drug Enforcement Administration

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