Four years after legal recreational marijuana went on sale in Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper says the black market for marijuana in the state is shrinking and predicted that it "will be largely gone" in a few years.
But new statistics show that arrests for the production of black market pot increased by 380 percent in the 2014-16 time frame, and Colorado law enforcement agencies say they are battling a boom in illegal marijuana cultivation by sometimes violent groups of criminals who rake in millions of dollars by exporting what they grow.
The Colorado Department of Public Safety, which tracks various marijuana-related statistics, found that manufacturing arrests leapt from 126 in 2014 to 476 in 2016, according to new state data obtained by The Gazette. Illegal manufacturing encompasses the unlicensed making of THC-laced products, as well as large, hidden growing operations where plant counts far exceed those allowed by state law.
Those numbers have not been put into a formal report yet. But Jack Reed, the state official who compiles them, confirmed the dramatic increase in arrests for illegal grows. Reed deferred to law enforcement officials for interpretation of the new data.
Other police agencies also report a growing element of violence in the illegal marijuana trade.
Denver counts seven of its 56 homicides in 2017 as marijuana-related.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Denver classified one-third of its 2017 marijuana cases as violent. Other agencies routinely report seizing guns in marijuana busts.
Overall, marijuana cases filed in state courts have plummeted by about 80 percent since voters legalized recreational marijuana in November, 2012, with sales beginning in 2014. Most officials attribute that number to the precipitous drop in simple possession arrests. There were 9,789 total cases in 2012, compared to 1,650 overall cases in 2016, and a 6 percent spike to 1,759 cases in 2017.
However, felony marijuana cases have risen steadily beginning in 2015 with 579 cases; 2016 saw 807 felony cases, and there were 901 in 2017. Possession of an ounce or less of marijuana is legal, whereas possessing 10 ounces or more is a felony.
That complicates enforcement, because a single home-grown plant can produce up to 2 pounds of leaves and flowers, officials say.
No statewide system tracks marijuana-related violence. But evidence of the human toll keeps rising. In Elbert County, two men recently shot each other to death in an apparent squabble over a large, illegally grown crop.
Just last week, a Jefferson County jury convicted a man of murdering a black market dealer who tried to sell him a pound of pot on Craigslist.
By nature, black market sales are impossible to quantify accurately, but even as arrests rise, black market sales appear to be a fraction of the legal sales in Colorado.
From 2014 through 2017, recreational and medical marijuana sales grew from $683 million annually to $1.5 billion last year. By comparison, the largest Colorado bust in 2017 charged 62 people and netted 4,000 pounds, which authorities estimate could be worth $16 million in states where marijuana is contraband.
One pound of Colorado marijuana can fetch $4,000 on the East Coast, a Front Range prosecutor said, citing the allure of the illegal market.
When Hickenlooper said the tide of black market production is receding, he was responding to a threat from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to crack down on states that legalized marijuana sales.
He defended the success of Colorado's legal dispensaries, adding, "I think in the next two or three years that black market might never be zero but it will be largely gone."
Mark Bolton, the governor's marijuana advisor, doesn't dispute that arrests for illegal manufacturing have risen. But he said Hickenlooper has taken "important steps to getting rid of black market activity," from supporting legislation that reduced the legal number of plants per household to bolstering law enforcement budgets for investigation.
Law enforcement officials, particularly Republicans, accuse the state's Democratic governor of minimizing the side effects of legalization. They contend that illegal basement businesses are thriving under their noses in a state that permits growing small amounts for personal use.
"It's out of control," said Ray Padilla, a drug agent who had just returned from a 20-house bust that yielded thousands of plants and several hundred pounds of harvested marijuana. "We probably spend more assets on marijuana now than we ever did."
Padilla, a balding 42-year-old sporting a beard, earrings and jeans, heads the Colorado Drug Investigators Association.
He and other law enforcement leaders say the lure of marijuana millions has drawn armed growers from places as distant as Florida, California and Mexico, as well as home-grown black marketeers who set up elaborate lighting and irrigation systems in suburban houses.
"I have encountered more weapons in marijuana locations than any other type of drug," Padilla said.
In El Paso County, the Sheriff's Office says violence is becoming common in the illegal market.
Last month, a man was Tased and zip-tied by assailants who broke into his home and stole his marijuana, wallet and truck. In December, a man who had stashed hundreds of pounds of marijuana in his home was shot in his doorway.
The victim has disappeared, and an arrest warrant has been issued.
In 27 raids last year, Sheriff Bill Elder said, "We seized guns out of almost every single one."
He holds the high potency of Colorado marijuana partly to blame.
"Colorado is exporting the best marijuana in the country, and it's the number one exporter," Elder said. "We are cranking out some seriously good weed."
In the 18th Judicial District, based in Arapahoe County, Republican District Attorney George Brauchler laments that law enforcement agencies have not tracked violence in marijuana-related crimes since legalization.
Brauchler, who is seeking the GOP nomination to run for state attorney general, said he is aware of at least nine homicide cases, not including the double killing in rural Elbert County.
In November, an illegal grower who lived in Elbert County and a smuggler shot and killed each other at a house where more than 50 pounds of marijuana was stored, according to Clinton McKinzie, Brauchler's chief deputy.
Prosecutors have seen marijuana seized in everything from Chinese food cans and car tires to duffel bags.
In addition to murders, "we've had a few tortures" by robbers demanding marijuana, McKinzie said. "One dude was blowtorched on the bottom of his feet, his thighs and his back."
In Denver, police counted seven homicide cases last year as marijuana-related, with five remaining open investigations.
In one of the two cases moving through the criminal justice system, a gang broke into the South Delaware Street home of Dominique Cozy, looking for marijuana and other drugs, and shot him to death during an attempted robbery, according to court records.
Six young men were charged with murder, and a teenage girl will be tried in juvenile court for allegedly helping them.
Cozy lived two doors down from a dispensary, Mighty Tree, and was a regular recreational customer, according to an employee, Steven Shorter.
He described Cozy as a good neighbor who would pick up trash to help the appearance of a largely industrial area. "Nice kid. Pleasant demeanor. Always had a kind word," he said. "I can't see how anyone had a problem with him."
On West Evans Avenue in Denver, a gunbattle erupted in a car after an argument over the quality of marijuana and marijuana resin in a black market sale. The buyer, the seller and the seller's girlfriend all fired weapons. A shot to the chest killed the buyer. The seller, James Wheeler, and his girlfriend, Kara Stewart, fled to Chicago, where they were found and arrested.
Last month, Wheeler was sentenced to seven years in federal prison.
In the Jefferson County case concluded this month, the defendant, Toussaint Hampton, was convicted of first-degree murder for killing the man who tried to sell him a pound of marijuana on Craigslist for $1,700. His co-defendant, Kainetray Bell, has pleaded guilty as an accessory and is due to be sentenced after trial.
Advocates of recreational use say they support efforts to weed out illegal growers, provided police respect legally operating dispensaries.
"We believe in the laws," said Kristi Kelly, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group in Colorado. "My hope is eventually this will all stabilize."
Kelly suggested that budget increases for enforcement could be a factor in the growth of marijuana seizures.
Beth McCann, the Democratic district attorney in Denver, voices less alarm about illegal growers than some elected Republican colleagues.
McCann praises dispensaries for adhering to the state's complex rules and for keeping violence from their doorsteps.
She counts children's access to marijuana and the opioid and methamphetamine epidemics as her top drug concerns, followed by illegal growers.
"I am kind of neutral," she said of legalization. "The tax money is certainly helpful to us. It's a lot of money. We're using some of that money for drug treatment."
John Walsh, the U.S. Attorney in Denver when recreational sales began, described smuggling as a cause for concern but not panic.
"Has there been an influx of people from out of state? Yes. Has there been an effective law enforcement response? Also yes. It is an ongoing problem," he said.
He credits the Hickenlooper administration for "taking it very seriously" and cooperating with federal efforts to curb black market dealing.
"This is a new world. Colorado is on the front end," he said. "We're doing more than any other state in trying to set up a really effective regulatory system."
Data journalist Burt Hubbard contributed to this story.