DENVER — Colorado's high-country chill makes it a tough place to grow marijuana outside. But federal authorities say legalization has emboldened pot growers into planting weed on the state's sparsely populated federal lands, often for shipment to other states.
Investigators are cracking down on illegal growers after discovering more and bigger operations in national forests and other federal land throughout the state, U.S. Attorney John Walsh said on Thursday. Authorities have raided an unusually high number of marijuana grows since late August, including five on remote stretches of federal land and a sixth on private property.
Local and federal authorities seized more than 20,000 pot plants and arrested 32 people, the most Walsh said he has seen facing federal marijuana-related charges in Colorado at one time.
"We've seen people come into Colorado and just set up large marijuana cultivations, perhaps with the feeling that, because there's a lot of marijuana activity in Colorado, they wouldn't be noticed," Walsh told The Associated Press.
Most of those arrested are from other states or countries, including Cuba and Mexico. Some are drug traffickers, and some were growing marijuana and shipping it to other states, including Florida, either by car or UPS.
The U.S. Justice Department has threatened to intervene in legal pot states that do not take adequate steps to keep the drug from going to criminal cartels, being diverted to other states and growing on federal property, among other conditions. But Walsh said his focus is on drug traffickers, rather than the state of Colorado, which he said is trying to make its regulatory system work.
Colorado authorities find pot grows on public lands toward the end of every summer, when the plants are harvested, but "this is really a wave," Walsh said.
"In these six cases, people were making no effort to comply with the regulatory system," Walsh said. "This is good-old, traditional marijuana growing, the illegal way."
The largest operation was discovered Sept. 7 in the San Isabel National Forest, northwest of Trinidad in Huerfano County, where investigators found more than 11,700 plants, irrigation pipe, pesticides, flammable liquids, camping gear, piles of trash and a rifle. The grow spread across 10 acres and included a kitchen structure and sleeping areas. Authorities arrested two men.
They arrested six people —a Honduran and five Mexican nationals — after finding a grow site on Sept. 30 along the Dolores River corridor in Montrose County, where they collected evidence of at least 1,000 recently harvested pot plants and processed marijuana.
And the task force arrested 20 people after finding more than 1,000 plants, 28 firearms and $25,000 in cash at grow sites on private land in Cotopaxi and Westcliffe in southern Colorado. Those arrested were moving marijuana to Florida, Walsh said.
The grows are at high elevation and can be damaging and costly to clean up, he said.