Operation Sweet Leaf busts justified by damage to society, commander says

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Last week, various law-enforcement agencies in the metro area unleashed Operation Sweet Leaf, featuring 25 grow-house raids, sixteen arrests and more. Since then, Commander Jerry Peters of the North Metro Drug Task Force, which led the effort, has heard doubts about the necessity for such a large-scale sweep. However, he believes doing so was vital -- and he explains why below.

In addition to the grow houses shuttered and the aforementioned arrests, authorities also collected over 147 pounds of marijuana, nearly 3,000 plants, around forty guns, more than $278,000 in U.S. currency and, for reasons officers have yet to discern, about fifteen million Iraqi dinar. In addition, seven children were found to be living in close proximity to the grows, "which is alarming to us," Peters notes. Social Services has now placed them in new settings.

Initial reports identified 22-year-old Jordan Buehrer as the main perpetrator, but Peters says that doesn't tell the whole story.

"We believe there were three sort of ringleaders to this operation," he says. "They all worked cooperatively with each other. One would have several grow houses, another would have several grow houses, and they would commingle their marijuana and ship it out of state, depending on the order they were receiving."

Peters can't go into detail about all the sales tracked by authorities because the investigation is ongoing. But he says at least seven states are thought to have received Operation Sweet Leaf shipments, including California, Texas, Iowa and Nebraska. He adds that "95 percent of all the marijuana grown here was being outsourced. So we've become one of the main source states for marijuana. We're the neighbor nobody wants."

While officers don't contend that medical marijuana centers or cultivation sites were being used as a front to conceal illegal activity, Peters believes the MMJ industry has attracted criminals who feel its growth allows them to hide in plain sight.

"I think what's happened is that with the accessibility that medical marijuana has brought to the people of Colorado, it's become acceptable -- and once it's acceptable, people start growing it on their own. And typically, what we see aren't two or three plants being grown in a back greenhouse or yard. We're seeing hundreds of plants in houses they've outfitted in nice neighborhoods. No one's living in them, and they've turned them into greenhouses and funnel the marijuana out of state, and not for medical purposes. It's become a diversified enterprise."

The crime is far from victimless, Peters believes. "These houses are being contaminated with mold. You can smell them from the outside, on the street, and the next people who move into the home aren't informed about it -- and that's a real health hazard for families and children. And the electricity bill is incredibly high. Let's say the energy usage for a normal house is 400 watts. Well, it's 4,000 watts for a typical grow house with 200 plants. That puts a tremendous burden on our energy levels. And then they move out without paying their bills. And who gets stuck with that cost? You and I do."

Page down to read more of Commander Jerry Peters's thoughts about Operation Sweet Leaf. Contamination and unpaid bills aren't the only repercussions from Operation Sweet Leaf and the like, Peters continues.

"People think, 'Why waste law enforcement time dealing with this issue? After all, it's only weed.' But it relates to so many other crimes -- out-of-state crimes as well as federal crimes, and interstate issues as well. And there are so many ripple effects. We've seen dramatic increases in marijuana use in schools, marijuana use in colleges. We see people robbed all the time for marijuana. There's an increase in break-ins and robberies."

Would legalization solve these problems? Not in Peters's view.

"The average person who smokes marijuana doesn't go to jail. They get a ticket, like a traffic ticket. But even after you dispel the idea that people are going to prison for using marijuana, there are still people who say, 'Why not make it like alcohol and regulate it? Then you could tax it, and you'd have all these revenues.' But that's just not the case. Look at all the problems we have with alcohol -- and the social cost to us is much, much higher than the revenue it brings in when you factor in traffic fatalities and addiction center visits and everything else."

As an example, he cites a study by the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy: "In 2007, federal and state government collected $14.5 billion from the sale of alcohol. But the overall alcohol-related costs were $185 billion. So that's essentially like the alcohol industry saying, 'We're going to give you $14.50, but we're going to take $185 back.'"

Of course, some marijuana advocates believe these numbers would go down if marijuana was legalized. But Peters says, "That's not true. It's going to compound the problem, and I think it's going to make it even worse. You're going to inundate the state with drugs -- and look at the problems we already have with prescription drugs. That's our second highest abuse problem in this state, and that's strictly regulated. And you can't really regulate marijuana, as we've learned through our medical marijuana program. That's a joke."

For these reasons, Peters says law enforcement representatives like him oppose broader legalization efforts as well as the sort of black market activity targeted by Operation Sweet Leaf. And he expects there'll be more such busts in the future. As he puts it, "We need to push back."

Look below to see a 9News report about Operation Sweet Leaf.

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More from our Marijuana archive: "Marijuana: U.S. Attorney 'not bluffing' about seizing dispensaries near schools."

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