Federal and state law enforcement took aim at an alleged network of illegal marijuana operations in Colorado from August into October.
A series of coordinated raids across the state resulted in more than 30 arrests over six weeks. The campaign is part of an effort by local police and federal agents to drive illegal cannabis syndicates out of business.
The office of U.S. Attorney John Walsh announced the raids in early October, saying criminal charges would be filed against at least 34 people arrested during the busts. Walsh’s office had already filed multiple charges against secret cultivation operations throughout Colorado.
“This wave of marijuana grow operation sites is greater than we’ve seen the last couple of years,” Walsh told The Denver Post. “They seem to have the view that if I come to Colorado and set up a marijuana grow operation I won’t be noticed.”
But the legality of marijuana in the state may not be the only draw for illegal growers. Historic drought conditions in California may be driving farmers to better, wetter locales. Though the record dry spell has affected large parts of the American West, Colorado is not currently in a drought.
“Marijuana takes a lot of water to grow,” Walsh said.
Indeed, critics in California have complained that cannabis farms are contributing to the drought there by using up large amounts of precious water for irrigation. Marijuana plants require more water than most other crops.
Cannabis has minimal impact on California drought
Industry advocates say even if cannabis is contributing to the California drought, the difference isn’t much. And most of the blame lies with illegal growers, rather than those who legally grow medical marijuana there.
In Colorado, authorities said the 34 defendants were mostly from outside the state. Some were Mexican citizens, while others came from Honduras and Cuba. All face charges of illegally growing cannabis. Police said they uprooted about 20,000 plants and seized about 300 kilograms of dried marijuana during the raids.
Walsh said his office and state officials plan to keep the pressure on illegal operations. Colorado legalized marijuana for recreational use in 2012, along with Washington State; Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia joined them in 2014. But the drug remains illegal for any use under federal law.
That, Walsh said, means federal agents will continue to act aggressively against illegal marijuana sites. The feds will also go after illegal out-of-state shipments, since moving any amount of cannabis from one state to another is a federal crime.
Concern of interstate trafficking
Federal officials said they’re concerned that marijuana is flowing from legal states into states where the drug is still prohibited. Observers have called those worries overblown and have pointed to data showing no uptick in interstate marijuana trafficking. Still, Walsh said federal agents would focus on transit issues.
“There is strong evidence the marijuana is being shipped into other states where it is illegal and the price is higher,” he said.
The autumn raids targeted several farms. The biggest series of busts shut down an alleged ring operating in southern Colorado and resulted in 20 arrests on Sept. 1. That syndicate allegedly grew more than 1,000 cannabis plants at eight locations and sent the product to Florida by UPS. Agents said they found 28 guns during these busts.
Another grow site held 3,900 plants and was raided Aug. 19 in the Pike National Forest in Jefferson County. Agents also found 3,000 pounds of irrigation pipe, pesticides, camping gear, flammable liquids, and garbage, they said.
On Aug. 28 agents arrested two Mexican nationals in the Buffalo Pass region near Steamboat Springs. Roughly 1,000 plants were destroyed and one gun was confiscated.
Two arrests were made Sept. 7 in the San Isabel National Forest. This site contained nearly 12,000 plants, and agents found a gun, irrigation piping, pesticides, more flammable liquids, trash, and camping gear.
Four Mexican nationals were arrested Sept. 15 near a farm along the Dolores River on federal land. Park rangers found 1,200 marijuana plants, some growing up to six feet tall, and seized 211 kilograms of processed marijuana, as well as a rifle.
Another 1,000 plants were found Sept. 30 in Montrose, also along the Dolores River. A Honduran citizen and five Mexican nationals were arrested in this bust.