Law Enforcement

The Feds Really Still Hate Colorado Pot

Kristin and Danny Murr-Sloat of AlpinStash in "Our Ten Favorite Marijuana Photos of 2020."
Kristin and Danny Murr-Sloat of AlpinStash in "Our Ten Favorite Marijuana Photos of 2020." Photo by Jacqueline Collins
In case you haven't been keeping up with the news since the turn of the century, Colorado voters approved Amendment 64, which legalized the limited sale of marijuana for recreational purposes, in November 2012. Then-Governor John Hickenlooper signed the measure into law the next month, and the first legal rec transactions took place on January 1, 2014, amid dire predictions by critics, including law enforcement groups, about the end of civilization as we know it.

Of course, no pot-calypse has taken place in these parts. But as evidenced in a March report from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the feds still have great antipathy for Colorado cannabis. References to the state's legalization of the product in the annual National Drug Threat Assessment are filled with heavy-handed invective and warnings about how crime organizations are using local standards for their own nefarious purposes.

Marijuana is only one of many topics discussed in the NDTA, with fentanyl, whose impact on Coloradans has been growing in truly troubling ways, among the substances spotlighted. A supplement to the assessment by the DEA's Denver field division points out the state's "significant increase in the trafficking of illicit fentanyl and methamphetamine compared to previous years. With the increase in availability of fentanyl and methamphetamine, drug-poisoning and overdose-related deaths have risen significantly. The Denver metro area alone saw fentanyl-related overdose deaths more than double."

The Denver office emphasizes that "along with the rise of illicit substances coming into the division's area of responsibility, law enforcement action has also increased." One example: During the past year, the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force Group 1 arrested over 65 individuals and confiscated more than 77,000 counterfeit pills containing fentanyl, 250 pounds of methamphetamine, sixty pounds of heroin and nearly $1 million in cash.

But while marijuana is inarguably less lethal than fentanyl and every other narcotic, the NDTA still treats Colorado's legalization of cannabis like a tremendous threat to all that's good and great in the state. Note this mention under the heading "U.S. Marijuana Markets": "Colorado law limits the amount of marijuana that dispensary customers can purchase per transaction. However, by making multiple purchases of marijuana or marijuana products on the same day, individuals can acquire larger amounts to divert and sell on the illicit market — referred to as 'looping.'"

Similar is a passage in the "Domestic Production" section: "Both state-licensed and illicit domestic marijuana production continue to increase and diversify. Expanding marijuana production, specifically in states that have legalized the drug, has led to saturated markets. Meanwhile, black market marijuana production continues to grow in California, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and other states that have legalized marijuana, creating an overall decline in prices for illicit marijuana as well. This further incentivizes drug trafficking organizations operating large-scale grow sites in these states to sell to customers in markets throughout the Midwest and East Coast, where marijuana commands a higher price."

Likewise, an item related to "Indoor Grow Operations" argues, "It is largely unknown how many people may be cultivating marijuana within the parameters of state-approved marijuana legality." The report maintains that "of the states with some form of legalized marijuana, about one-third prohibit private residents from growing their own marijuana. The rest allow for private grows in the general range of 6 to 12 plants, with varying stipulations on how many can be mature plants and how many can be seedlings. Among those, Colorado remains as an outlier. While a state law enacted in 2018 limits home grows to 12 total plants within a residence, medical marijuana patients can still get higher plant recommendations from physicians and can legally grow up to 99 plants, provided the grow is not located in a residential property."

Clearly, that's a problem for the DEA, whose so-called "Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program" seized over four million plants and 363,098 pounds of processed marijuana from 5,287 outdoor and indoor sites in the U.S. during fiscal year 2019 — around a 30 percent increase from the year before. And although California topped the list of indoor grows raided by the agency, at 644, Colorado's 118 finished in second place. As for bulk-processed marijuana, Colorado accounted for around 5 percent of the total — a tie for third place with Oklahoma, but well behind California (54 percent) and Arizona (18 percent).

The NDTA acknowledges that such seizures of illegal marijuana "have been declining since 2015," most likely "caused by the challenges presented by the changing marijuana legal landscape." But Colorado seizures still landed near the top, albeit behind California and Texas.

"DEA, alongside its state and local counterparts, continue to dismantle destructive black market marijuana grows in communities throughout Colorado," the Denver field office reports. "Further, DEA made significant strides in targeting the national and international criminal organizations responsible for establishing and operating these large-scale grow operations. Our investigations resulted in the seizures of thousands of high-potency marijuana plants and products, denying these criminal organizations millions of dollars in profits."

That statement doesn't pin the crimes on Colorado voters who chose to legalize recreational marijuana more than eight years ago — but it's not difficult to read between the lines.

Click to read the 2020 Drug Enforcement Administration National Drug Threat Assessment.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts