Colorado’s illegal marijuana grow sites uncovered in crackdown | SummitDaily.com
Greg Ellison
gellison@summitdaily.com

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Colorado’s illegal marijuana grow sites uncovered in crackdown

In recent months, a large number of illegal marijuana grows have been destroyed across Colorado by federal, state and local law enforcement.

According to a press release issued last week by the U.S. Department of Justice, 32 individuals are facing federal drug trafficking charges after nearly 20,000 cannabis plants were discovered and destroyed in more than a half-dozen busts. Officials also seized over 300 kilograms of harvested marijuana, along with firearms and cash. Nearly all the suspects reside outside of Colorado and included Mexican and Cuban nationals. Some of the suspects were here illegally.

"These joint federal-state law enforcement actions against large illicit marijuana grows represent a new phase in the challenges facing law enforcement after Colorado's legalization and regulation of marijuana under state law," said United States Attorney John Walsh.

Court documents allege that some of those responsible for the marijuana growing appear to be working for drug trafficking organizations.

On Aug. 19, more than 3,900 marijuana plants, 3,000 pounds of irrigation pipe, flammable liquids, camping gear and trash were removed from the Pike National Forest near the Green Mountain area in Jefferson County. The eradication was a joint effort between the U.S Forest Service, Department of Homeland Security Investigations, Jefferson County Sheriff's Office and Colorado National Guard Joint Counter Drug Task Force. An investigation is ongoing.

About a week later, on Aug. 28, approximately 1,000 plants, camping gear and a handgun were removed from the Routt National Forest near the Buffalo Pass Area. Two Mexican nationals, here illegally, were arrested in connection with the operation.

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Of all the busts, the largest number of arrests — 20 mostly Cuban nationals — occurred on Sept. 1, when a DEA-lead task force executed eight search warrants on private lands in Cotopaxi and Westcliffe in Freemont and Custer counties. Law enforcement found well over 1,000 plants, 50 pounds of cured marijuana, 28 firearms and $25,000 in cash. The seizures were part of a major drug trafficking organization investigation, Walsh said. He noted that the individuals apprehended appeared to be acting in an organized manner and were either driving or shipping cannabis to Florida.

The largest number of plants destroyed in the recent round of busts, occurred on Sept. 7, when more than 11,700 were discovered on San Isabel National Forest lands, in the Cordova Pass Area, about 40 miles northwest of Trinidad. The U.S. Forest Service and the Huerfano Sheriff's Office joined forces in this instance and are still working to identify suspects. They also removed irrigation pipes, pesticides, flammable liquids, camping gear and trash. The site was spread over 10 acres and included a kitchen structure and three sleeping areas.

Two other busts occurred along the Dolores River corridor between Gateway and Naturita in Montrose County. Both cultivation operations were located on Bureau of Land Management property.

On Sept. 15, more than 1,200 fully mature cannabis plants were discovered, many reaching over 6 feet in height, along with 211 kilograms of dried marijuana and a firearm. It took two and a half days to eradicate the plants and rangers arrested four Mexican nationals who were at the scene.

Two weeks later, on Sept. 30, in the same area, evidence of at least a thousand marijuana plants that were recently harvested and nearly 70 kilograms of dried cannabis were uncovered. Five more Mexican nationals and a man from Honduras were arrested in connection with the operation.

Jeff Dorschner, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office, noted that law enforcement is seeing a substantial increase in illicit marijuana grows.

"Some feel that in Colorado, since marijuana is legal, that it's a free for all state," he said.

Due to drought conditions in mountainous regions of Northern California, which is traditionally known for large outdoor grows, Dorschner said many cultivators relocated to Colorado.

"It's possible that because Colorado had a fairly wet season and it is a similar terrain they moved some operations over," he opined.

During the early fall outdoor marijuana tends to stand out as surrounding vegetation yellows and less greenery is available camouflage purposes.

"In short it's harvest season right now," he said. "They (illicit cultivations) are getting noticed not only by law enforcement but by the public, who then call law enforcement."

He also noted that many of the drug trafficking groups use illegal aliens to guard grows, who they often view as expendable.

"Illegal activity of this kind underscores the need for strong, joint law enforcement efforts by federal and state authorities to identify, cut off and destroy the efforts of drug trafficking organizations to use Colorado as a 'source state' for export of illegal marijuana around the country," Walsh said.

In Summit County, there has been little evidence of his type of activity, according to Taneil Ilano, public information officer for the Summit County Sheriff's Office.

"We don't have an illegal marijuana grow problem in Summit County," she said.

What is sometimes overlooked, Dorschner said, is the geological impact of large outdoor marijuana cultivations.

"They often use pesticides that are illegal in the U.S. and it can destroy land that takes decades to restore," he said. "We want to catch and punish these people as a deterrent so they don't want to use our forest land as their personal greenhouse."