Large and small illegal marijuana farms are a persistent problem across the state, including Southwest Colorado, according to a local sheriff and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.
The CBI has formed a special unit to tackle the issue and partner with local law enforcement agencies on investigations.
It is legal under Colorado law for adults 21 and older to grow up to six marijuana plants for personal use, but officers are seeing violations of the limit.
In unincorporated Montezuma County, retail and commercial marijuana operations are prohibited by county ordinance. Some growers are licensed by the state to grow marijuana for medical patients, which are monitored by the Sheriff’s Office, said Sheriff Steve Nowlin.
The smaller marijuana gardens that exceed the legal recreational limit are less likely to be prosecuted if the owner comes into compliance, Nowlin said.
“The vast majority are cooperative and comply,” he said. “Contact us if you suspect an illegal grow. We can let you know if it is a legal operation. If not, we pay them a visit.”
Nowlin said the caseload for suspected illegal marijuana grows has been steady.
Recent pot farm casesIn 2018, several properties were raided by local and federal officers to break up an illegal marijuana operation run by Chinese nationals.
One of the properties, on Montezuma County Road 22, had been used by Jimmy Dang and Qi Lin Wu to cultivate a large marijuana farm. Both were convicted of conspiracy to distribute more than 1,000 marijuana plants.
But after they vacated the property, it was occupied by several other individuals, according to a sheriff’s report. When the owners inspected the property in June, they found a hidden marijuana garden with more than 40 plants. The black market value was estimated at $17,500. No charges were filed in the case, and the plants were destroyed.
On Aug. 12, the Montezuma-Cortez Narcotics Investigation team responded to a property on County Road 26 after the new owner reported a large amount of harvested marijuana. The marijuana was stored in crates and paper bags, according to a sheriff’s report.
Deputies located suspected remnants of a previous large-scale marijuana grow, including irrigation equipment, fencing, camouflage material and wild marijuana plants. The property is in a secluded canyon.
It was estimated that at one point the marijuana grow could have held 300 plants, according to the report. The previous owner had moved to the East Coast, and no charges were filed.
On Aug. 27, the San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office assisted the CBI with a search warrant on a Wrights Mesa property outside Norwood, where there was a suspected large, illegal marijuana grow operation. Deputies and CBI agents found 500 pounds of large marijuana plants on the property and a suspected butane hash oil lab.
The CBI also conducted separate operations in Montrose County about the same time.
Growing marijuana with required state permits and following state policies is legal, said Nowlin and San Miguel Sheriff Bill Masters. The issue is when people choose to follow an illegal business plan.
“Every business operating in our county needs to file proper state permits. People who refuse to follow these policies are going to get in trouble with the law,” Masters said.
On May 20, Montezuma County deputies assisted the county with noxious weed mitigation on a Road 41 property. While there, deputies discovered a marijuana garden with more than 100 plants, which exceeds the legal limit for the two adult renters.
According to the report, Sheriff Detective John Hargraves explained to a renter of the property the legal limits for personal marijuana plants “and offered him the opportunity to reduce his crop to the legal limit.” All but 12 plants were destroyed by the two renters, and no charges were filed. Follow-up visits ensured compliance.
Large, unpermitted marijuana farms with illegal commercial and distribution intent will face charges, Nowlin said.
He said two cases involve large marijuana grow operations on Road R and Road 24.5. One farm had 200 plants, and the other had 800 plants. Search warrants have been issued for both properties, Nowlin said, and charges are pending.
CBI creates Black Market Team The CBI began its Black Market Marijuana Team efforts in 2018.
In 2019, the 13-member CBI team seized 25,161 illegal marijuana plants from 82 illegal grow sites throughout Colorado, according to its 2019 annual report. Of the 36 cases, there were 49 arrests and 82 illegal grow sites were dismantled. Sixty-four firearms and 5,487 pounds of processed marijuana were seized.
The reports say that during spring 2019, the CBI received numerous complaints from rural Southwest Colorado jurisdictions involving illegal marijuana cultivation.
“Many of these anonymous complaints originated from citizens living near suspected illicit grows,” according to the 2019 annual report.
CBI agents executed state search warrants in Montezuma, La Plata, Montrose, Delta and Ouray counties. The warrants resulted in eight arrests, the seizure of 1,000 marijuana plants, 155 pounds of processed marijuana and 68 pounds of concentrates. Thirty-two firearms were seized, and two butane extraction labs were shut down.
According to Susan Medina, CBI communications director, a driving force behind the Black Market Marijuana Team has been to assist smaller, rural law enforcement agencies in addressing the issue of illegal marijuana grows.
Medina said in one instance, members of the CBI hiked deep into a mountainous area in southern Colorado to dismantle an illegal grow. In addition to locating thousands of marijuana plants as part of the massive growing system, the team came upon pesticides that are illegal and deadly to humans and wildlife, Medina said.
“It is important to emphasize that the CBI focuses on large-scale operations involving illegal marijuana grows where there are hundreds, if not thousands of plants,” according to a CBI statement. “These efforts not only protect our communities, but also those who have worked to become properly licensed to legally cultivate and sell marijuana in the state.”