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Was the Dan Tang Drug Trafficking Organization in cahoots with Colorado dispensaries?

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In February 2008, as detailed in the recent Westword stories "Up in Smoke" and "Tales of the Dragon," DEA agents and north metro narcotics detectives uncovered an indoor marijuana ring the likes of which Colorado had never seen. As part of "Operation Fortune Cookie," investigators hauled more than 24,000 high-grade marijuana plants and millions of dollars out of cookie-cutter suburban ranch homes in the largest and possibly most complex pot bust in state history.

The drug operation closely resembled a grow ring that had been busted in Sacramento, California a few years prior. According to investigators, the Colorado version of the scheme developed in 2007 -- just about the time some of Colorado's first medical-marijuana dispensaries were popping up. Was there any correlation between the grow ring and the dispensaries? Jeff Sweetin, DEA special agent in charge of the Rocky Mountain field division of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said he believed there was during a Westword interview last January. "I don't believe that's coincidence," he said, adding that in order to take advantage of medical-marijuana laws, "I believe they purposely moved that operation to Colorado."

But is there any proof to Sweetin's assertion? Was all the weed from "Operation Fortune Cookie" being used as medicine? The evidence suggests not.

Among the 7,000 pages of internal investigation documents recently obtained by Westword, there's little mention of medical marijuana at all. While some of the drug-ring leaders allegedly told underlings that their grow operations were legal because of medical-marijuana laws (one suspect reportedly even sold fake "medical-marijuana licenses" to others in the group), there's little if any proof the weed actually went to dispensaries or patients. Much of the product seemed to head to other states, though suspects told authorities they were selling some to "white boys" from Denver and Littleton and hanging out at the Denver nightclub Vinyl to score new customers.

There might be a more subtle link between Operation Fortune Cookie and medical marijuana, however. Investigators took extensive photo and video documentation of the grow houses, and it would have been easy to imagine them using it in a major press conference about the bust. It would've made for big headlines: "Massive weed-based crime ring hidden in the suburbs!" Lord knows the drug warriors could have used such political ammunition against the increasingly powerful arguments of local medical-marijuana activists.

But as Operation Fortune Cookie imploded and officials squabbled among themselves, such a press conference never materialized and news stories about the spectacular bust were few and far between. In the meantime, the state's medical-marijuana scene went berserk. It's hard to say whether more media coverage of the pot bust would've made much difference, though now we'll never know for sure. These days, Colorado's so awash in weed that even a story about 24,000 marijuana plants is sooo 2008.

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Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.


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