Marijuana-reform advocates who backed Amendment 64, the 2012 ballot measure that legalized limited recreational marijuana sales, argued that its passage would make Colorado safer, because legal businesses would squeeze out the black market and free up law enforcement resources to tackle more serious offenses. But in discussing the recent conviction of Raymundo Ugalde for a murder committed during an illegal pot transaction, George Brauchler, 18th Judicial District DA and candidate for Colorado Attorney General, argues that the state's cannabis experiment has done just the opposite.
"We've had violent crimes associated with the transaction of illegal marijuana in increasing numbers," Brauchler said in a conversation prior to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions's announcement that he is rescinding the so-called Cole memo, a 2013 policy that offered limited protection from federal prosecution for the cultivation, distribution and possession of pot in states that allow and regulate cannabis sales. "And homicides that might have previously been about cocaine or meth? Now, a huge chunk of those drug homicides are related to the transaction of illegal marijuana."
Brauchler has made similar arguments in this space before. Back in July, we published a post headlined "Shawn Geerdes's Marijuana-Grow Murder Used to Attack Legal Pot," which asserted that the DA had attempted to score political points with anti-cannabis critics by way of post-prosecution statements such as, "Here is yet another violent crime related to marijuana. Whatever benefits there may be from the legalization of marijuana, eradicating violent crime associated with it is not one of them." In response, Brauchler wrote an op-ed for Westword in which he maintained that at least eleven pot-related homicides had occurred since legalization.
One such incident took place on May 23, 2016 outside the Las Cabanas nightclub, located at 1130 Yosemite Street. Here's how Brauchler describes the events that led up to Ugalde's murder of 32-year-old Melvin Castellano-Savillon.
"The victim was there with his brother," Brauchler recounted. "The defendant [Ugalde] went there to pick up some other people, who sold illegal marijuana to the victim and the brother; the victim's wife was in the back seat asleep. After the purchase for $15 of marijuana was made, the defendant came up to the driver's side window and said, 'Hey, you guys want to score some coke?' There was a conversation back and forth, and finally, the bad guy produced a .357 and said, 'This is a robbery.' The brother gave up his wallet — said, 'Hey man, whatever, that's cool.' But the driver [Castellano-Savillon] said, 'Don't give this guy anything. He's not going to pull the trigger. This guy isn't going to do nothing.'"
He was wrong.
"The defendant did do something," Brauchler continued. "He shot three times, and the only person he hit was the driver. The brother and the wife were okay, but the driver was shot through the side and ended up dying."
As Brauchler acknowledged, "This was an illegal sale, for sure — and I asked our prosecutor about that. I said, 'This is a market where it's legal to buy. Why are these guys out there in front of a nightclub trying to purchase illegal marijuana?' And the speculation — and I think it's pretty smart speculation — is that these were illegal immigrants. The wife and the brother ended up applying for a U visa or some kind of protected status after they were victimized. You don't have to be a citizen to go into a store and buy marijuana or have someone do it for you, but the fact is, these guys knew this was a place where you could score marijuana, and that's where they went to do it."
Ugalde has now been convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole — and to Brauchler, the crime for which he was put away is symbolic of unfulfilled promises related to Amendment 64.
"During the pitch for why we should support the amendment, a big part of it was, 'We're going to save a ton of money because law enforcement won't have to spend time tracking down low-level street users of marijuana. We'll be able to focus on bigger crimes, because street use will be legalized.' That's true only to the extent that we don't arrest people for usable amounts of marijuana 99 times out of 100, because it's legal in almost every circumstance. But the amendment hasn't done anything about violent crime associated with it."
Marijuana "wasn't the precipitating cause of this crime," Brauchler conceded. "It may have been the reason the victim came into contact with him, but the defendant had spent time in YOS [the Youth Offender System] for first-degree assault some years before, and violence wasn't new to him. It was part and parcel of a good chunk of his life. But even if marijuana didn't cause what happened here, legalizing it has done nothing, in my opinion, to eliminate these crimes. They are still happening."
Indeed, Brauchler believes offenders have used marijuana legalization as a way of finding new victims. "Early on, there were these marijuana tourists who were excited to come to Colorado, and they'd get hooked up with someone who would advertise to them — like, 'I'll take you on a tour of all these great marijuana places.' Well, these guys knew the tourists had cash with them, because it was a cash-only business — so they'd rip them off. And even today, when guys are setting up marijuana deals, one or both of them — not in every case, but in many cases — tend to be armed and ready to rip off the other guy. Drug rips are just not that uncommon."
Another possible reason for illegal marijuana sales in Colorado cited by Brauchler is cost. "The other day, I was talking to someone who was a big proponent of Amendment 64, and he said, 'When you tax it this much, this is the kind of stuff you expect. You expect things to spill out to the black market. The higher the taxes, the higher the price, and the more of it that spills into the black market.'"
In addition, Brauchler went on, "I wonder if our permissive attitude toward marijuana results in a reduced interest in some to follow the law. Like, now if you get caught with marijuana, it's not a big deal, because it's legal to possess. So people go out and they may buy it more readily whether it's from a store or some other place because they believe 'I'm not possessing an illegal product.' But they're doing it in an illegal way."