WEED BUST
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El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder and others took part in combating an illegal marijuana grow off of Hahn Rd. on Thursday June 21, 2018 in Calhan. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette)

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Law enforcement has been blaming increased crime in the Pikes Peak region in recent years on the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana, despite little evidence to back the claim. Now they’re out to prove it.

The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office started collecting data this year to show how often marijuana is linked to crime.

“Colorado is one of the first states to legalize (recreational marijuana), so I think we owe it to the Legislature and the community to do some research and (produce) data on the impact of legalization,” Sheriff’s Lt. Bill Huffor said. “Anecdotally, we can see a rise in crime related to marijuana. But now we have a responsibility to prove it.”

El Paso County deputies serving more warrants for illegal pot grows than for all other crimes

Huffor said he knows marijuana has increased the workload at the Sheriff’s Office, which has a five-member rural outreach team focused on marijuana enforcement. Last year, the unit busted 115 illegal grows and served dozens of search warrants on suspected grows.

But beyond illegal cultivation and distribution of marijuana, he said, marijuana also has been the driving force behind home invasions, burglaries, assaults and even homicides.

For example, he said, Gustavo Del Sol Sanchez was shot to death last January during a robbery at a suspected illegal marijuana grow off Colorado 94. That incident later led to a shootout in which William Bacorn, a suspect in Sanchez’s death, was killed.

Sheriff’s officials tried last year to define marijuana’s nexus to crime but found their method “cumbersome” for deputies and inconsistently applied. This year, deputies can “time-stamp” marijuana-related crimes by calling dispatch.

It seems to be working, Huffor said.

In the first 23 days of January, deputies linked 29 crimes to marijuana, meaning either the use or presence of the drug was illegal, or it was the motivation behind the offense. Those calls involved traffic stops, burglaries and domestic violence, sheriff’s officials said.

Crimes such as underage drug use or attempts to rob a person of their supply also would be counted, Huffor said. Situations that only happen to involve the legal presence of weed will not, he said.

“Most of them are pretty obvious,” Huffor said. “We have plenty of marijuana-related calls for service. We had three in the last three days (Jan. 20-23). We don’t need to inflate our stats.”

The Sheriff’s Office is not alone in trying to quantify marijuana’s effects on local crime. Colorado Springs police reported the drug as a factor in eight homicides in 2016 and three in 2017. But how often it pops up in other crime is less clear.

Police Chief Pete Carey last year called marijuana “one of the biggest public safety challenges our region is facing today,” but statistics cited to support that claim were underwhelming. Of 484 robberies in 2017, 15 involved marijuana.

Officials slam impact of legalized pot on Colorado Springs area

Huffor expects the Sheriff’s Office’s stats to show a bigger nexus as deputies continue to ramp up marijuana enforcement.

A $330,000 state grant this year will allow the office to update equipment and conduct more overtime busts of grows, and $100,000 from county commissioners is paying to move one deputy to full-time marijuana enforcement.

“I can tell you we’re not going to slow down,” Huffor said.

Contact the writer at 719-636-0362 or find her on Twitter: @njKaitlinDurbin.

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Kaitlin is a public safety reporter with a focus on investigations. She is a proud Ohioan, champion for local libraries, volunteer reading tutor and an expert ice cream connoisseur (mint chocolate chip!). She joined the Gazette in 2016.

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