A compliance check at an alleged residential marijuana grow in El Paso County this week went like most others, according to some of the law enforcement agents who routinely carry them out.
The occupants were Cuban, they were growing under the premise of a medically extended plant count of 99, they had ties to another suspected illegal grow in the county, and they were over their limit. And yet no one was arrested.
"It's right next door; it's everywhere, and most of it is illegal," El Paso County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Emory "Ray" Gerhart said of marijuana grows sweeping the county as groups of people move here to take advantage of legalization.
As some proof of that assertion, Gerhart and a small contingent of deputies Thursday checked a house in the Woodmen Hills area of Falcon where community tips indicated a grow was blooming. At the time, it's legality wasn't known.
Without a warrant, deputies knocked on the door and, through a Spanish interpreter, asked a man and woman if they were growing marijuana and how many plants they had. The couple invited deputies inside to see.
Stepping into the clean-carpeted, furnished home that smelled strongly of fresh linen, it wasn't evident that the attached three-car garage had been converted into a grow space with professional grade equipment and 40 potted plants in vegetation.
Nor was it noticeable that at least three other rooms in the house were being converted for similar reasons.
But deputies saw a different picture from a reporter who tagged along with them, picking up on red flags seen at similar grows that turned out to be illegal: air fresheners were plugged into every outlet, two commercial-grade air-conditioning units were attached to the side of the house, and the occupants were quick to say they had paperwork supporting the medical marijuana grow, just not with them at the house.
The man, through an interpreter, told deputies he paid $700 for the doctor visit that earned him a 99-plant extension.
About 40 minutes later, the man's juvenile son pulled up in a Mercedes and handed documents to deputies. The papers showed that approval for the extended plant count was more than a year expired and was registered to a Fountain address where the man said he harvested about 40 plants twice before. He moved to the Falcon house less than two months ago, he said.
"We often see one person with paperwork covering multiple grows," Gerhart said. "Then you have to start tracking how many people are using the same set of paperwork."
Even when shown legal documentation, deputies can still enforce a county ordinance that limits a property to 12 marijuana plants. Noncompliance is punishable by a $100 fine or up to 10 days in jail.
In general, police favor an approach that brings growers into compliance over arrests and fines, especially when the amounts of marijuana involved are relatively small.
Alone, the 40-plant grow in Falcon didn't appear to be a major threat, but experience tells Gerhart it has the potential for trouble. The home was early into its transformation, but once the other rooms were set up, it had the capacity to house "well over 99 plants," Gerhart explained.
Deputies also realized the woman living there was related to a man suspected of running two illegal grows in Fountain, where deputies recently found several large Ziplock bags of suspected dried weed ready for distribution. The bags were taken for testing. Gerhart could not answer whether the Fountain man had been arrested.
Gerhart estimates there are 40 other illegal grows in Falcon and 100 in the county. Other law enforcement agencies also estimate there are at least that many illegal grow houses in El Paso County. During a 2016 conference on marijuana in Colorado Springs, a Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman said the agency is aware of about 250 illegal operations within city limits. No estimates were provided for the county, but agents raided several homes across El Paso County last year and were conducting others Friday.
The DEA would not provide details on the number of homes targeted Friday or their general locations.
Gerhart said he believes about 95 percent of weed produced from those illegal grows is being exported. He declined to show evidence to back up the high figure because it could reveal law enforcement tactics for finding and tracking offenders, but he did say that other states, particularly conservative Southern ones along the East Coast, are catching growers in transport with the illicit goods.
By Gerhart's calculation, there's more weed being produced in Colorado than the Colorado market demands.
"I don't care how sick you are, nobody can smoke 99 plants' worth," Gerhart said. "This product is not staying here; it's going somewhere else."
In some ways, marijuana compliance in the county has become a game of catch and release, Gerhart said.
The Cuban residents were friendly and compliant Thursday; they had a relatively small number of plants, and none of the plants were ready for harvest, so deputies gave them a warning and a notice they'd be back in 10 days to see if the plant count had been reduced to 12.
There's no way to know if the man's excess plants will be destroyed as they should be or if they'll be moved to another location, but it's the best law enforcement can do for now.
"He's not a candidate for jail," Gerhart said. "We could have taken his excess plants and charged him, but we can get him into compliance, so that is the best way to approach it."
It may not be a permanent fix.
Before officers left, the man asked two questions: What if he moved before officers returned in 10 days, and what counties have less strict regulations than El Paso?
"That's all we're going to be doing is moving them elsewhere," Gerhart said. "A lot of these people we encounter were kicked out of the northern part of the state, so they're just going to keep looking for a place they can either do it legally or illegally in rural counties where enforcement can't keep up.
"They're just going to kick the rock down the road."
Contact Kaitlin Durbin: 636-0362