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Sheriff Bill Elder delivers a strong message with latest warrants on illegal pot grows in El Paso County

May 29, 2018 Updated: June 12, 2018 at 11:06 am
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Marijuana seized from an illegal grow in El Paso County. Courtesy photo.

El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder, who vowed to crack down on black-market marijuana this year, announced Tuesday that his office is serving more warrants on illegal pot grows than all other crimes combined.

It has executed 55 such warrants over the past five months, seizing 5,200 marijuana plants, Elder said. In all of 2017, the deputies raided 73 grows and seized 2,560 plants, the office reported in March.

Elder predicted that marijuana warrants will outnumber other warrants by 2-to-1 by the end of the year.

"That is an incredible tempo," he said. "It completely obliterates anything that we've done in past years, and this is just the tip of the iceberg."

Deputies had spent the morning destroying hundreds of plants seized during May raids. The plants were stored in Conex containers to dry out before they could be shredded.

A change in state law effective Jan. 1 limits pot plants to 12 per home, so people no longer could grow more under the guise of medical marijuana extended plant counts, the sheriff said.

That "loophole," Elder said, led to about 650 illegal grows in the county, including in Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs and Monument.

"I don't know the numbers for sure, but I would venture a guess (that) we lead the state today in illegal black-market marijuana grows," he said. "I think if they were pushing as much eradication as we are, we would hear about it."

Top pot Deputy Jeff Schulz in March also characterized the county as the worst marijuana hub in the state, though he based his analysis on the area's "vast open spaces" and the county's 19,000 medical marijuana card holders, the most of any Colorado county.

No one is tracking black market numbers, though. Individual agencies might count busts in a given year, but no larger repository shows the scope of the problem statewide.

Colorado has a legislative mandate to track and regulate only the legal marijuana industry, which departments do through 15 reports published through the year.

But Elder said criminals no longer have free rein in the county, and word is spreading. "The Sheriff's Office is coming, and we're just not going to stop."

He predicted some criminals might be moving their grows to other counties or out of state, or they're figuring out "how to get out of business" altogether.

In the past, Schulz said in March, deputies would raid a grow, and 10 new ones would pop up within the week. "It was a never-ending cycle."

But now that the county is cutting electrical power to the homes, requiring permits to get back in and requesting liens, it is "shutting them down 100 percent," he said.

He said he expects the efforts to decrease illegal grows this year.

"I think a lot of people are getting nervous," Schulz said. "They don't want to deal with us continuing to take their product, so I think they're moving on to an extent."

But even at the current pace of busting grows, Elder said, his office would need nearly five years to eradicate the 650 known grows in the county.

"We can't keep this up," he said.

The self-described "anti-marijuana" sheriff said he hopes the county's struggle serves as a warning to other states considering legalization of recreational marijuana. Colorado "let the genie out of the bottle" by legalizing weed without putting "the right caps" on plant counts, but other states don't have to repeat the mistake, he said.

"Take the time to put those restrictions in place, or you're going to suffer the same fate that we have," Elder said.

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Editor's note: In a previous version of this story Sheriff Bill Elder reported serving 64 search warrants this year. The Sheriff's Office later corrected that number to 55 after a second count.

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Contact Kaitlin Durbin: 636-0362

Twitter: @njKaitlinDurbin

Facebook: Kaitlin Durbin

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