New law helps Colorado law enforcement address black market marijuana

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For years, criminals were allowed to work in a loophole to grow marijuana and ship it out of state. Some of those criminals are organized crime cartels here in our state, according to local sheriffs. 

Now, law enforcement is able to address the criminal activity thanks to a new law on Colorado books. 

House Bill 1220 was signed into law last year, and it scales back what was originally in Amendment 20. Instead of allowing an extended plant count of 99 plants, medical marijuana patients are now capped at 12.

"House Bill 1220 has allowed us to get in front of it, and allowed us to start the process of at least slowing it down," Teller County Sheriff Jason Mikesell said. 

If there's more than the allowed 12 cannabis plants, it's a criminal offense. The law was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper in June.  

"I think we do have the teeth, so that bill has real teeth in it," Hickenlooper said. The law didn't take effect until Jan. 1, 2018.

"It was a great idea for people that were growing legally, but what it did is it allowed illegal growers to harvest two more times since the law was passed," El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder said. 

"We really are at that 11th hour to slow it down, to get in front of it, to stop it," Mikesell said. But come the new year, Teller County and El Paso County were able to and started taking down the illegal operations.

El Paso County seizing a total of 3,500 plants and 550 pounds of processed product since the first of the year. Teller County has seized roughly 1,000 pounds of cannabis since Jan. 1, 2018. 

But behind each bust is a lot of manpower, which can be a drain on resources. "A single warrant search of 200 plants can take as many as 20 to 25 people," Elder said. 

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That's why Mikesell said some counties aren't taking the same stand he and Elder are. "There's a fiscal responsibility to stay within our budgets, and we're doing that," Mikesell said. "I think it's worth the fight." 

"It's manpower intensive. It's risky. But what's the option? Is the option to just turn our back and say, 'Well, we lost this?' I don't think so," Elder said. "I don't think that's what this community intends."

Another issue facing deputies trying to enforce it is that those who are growing illegally are adapting to law enforcement techniques. 

"We've actually seen grows moved from place to place," Elder said. "We're seeing grows in semi-trailers where they could back up, hook on to a semi, and drive off." 

As growers adapt, Mikesell says Colorado laws need to get more specific to help stop the criminals. "Narrowing down how many plants -- we see some plants that have one pound to three pounds of marijuana on each plant," Mikesell said. "That's not a mom and pop growing for their medical." 

But both sheriffs made a promise to those still growing illegally, as they're determined to scale back the black market. 

"We're coming for you, there's no stopping us," Mikesell said. "I'm going to hurt you financially, we're going to hurt you by the fact that your people are going to be sitting in my jail."

"If you're growing illegal, black market marijuana you can bet we know it and we're coming," Elder said. 

To be clear: the sheriffs are not concerned with those who are growing legally, whether that be medically or recreationally. They're concerned with illegal activity and those whose grows are not in compliance.

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