Drug raids targeting illegal marijuana grow operations shipping to out-of-state markets have made headlines in Colorado, but Colorado Springs has seemed untouched.
That's about to change.
Judgment day is coming, said Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers. He expects hundreds of busts in coming months.
And those busts won't focus on your average home grows, where citizens cultivate a few more plants than the 12 legally permitted, officials say. They are targeting unregistered, commercial-sized operations run by out-of-state residents, mainly from Florida and with ties to cartels.
Florida's proximity to Cuba has increasingly made it an entry point for drug cartels looking to penetrate markets in the U.S., officials say.
"If you look at who is being busted in Pueblo and who will be busted in Colorado Springs over the summer, you can tell: These are organized crime," Suthers said, "A lot of them are Cubans coming up from Central America, and they're buying or leasing homes, making huge amounts of money (and) trashing the homes.
"There's no question, in Colorado Springs we have large illegal grow operations in several hundred homes," Suthers added.
Two Denver drug enforcement agents were even more specific in an April 11 presentation to the City Council, saying they have identified at least 186 large-scale marijuana grows operating in Colorado Springs and trafficking products to the Midwest and East Coast. Some of the drugs are getting into Mexico, the agents said.
Agents did not specify whether they have busted any of those growers.
Better weed, higher profits
Growers are coming to Colorado to take advantage of marijuana laws and to turn a hefty profit. In the 1970s and '80s, a marijuana plant's psychoactive agent, THC, was about 4 percent locally and as high as 11 percent coming from Mexico, said Pueblo County Sheriff Law Enforcement Bureau Chief David J. Lucero.
Through technological advances, today's Colorado marijuana has THC levels of 30 percent. Hash oil, a cannabis extract, can have THC levels as high as 60 percent, Lucero said.
"This is super-potent stuff, and it's a draw," Lucero said. Buyers are willing to pay for the good stuff.
A single marijuana plant can produce products that sell for $1,000 to $2,000 in Colorado, where the drug is legal, according to Drug Enforcement Agency statistics. In other states, those same products might sell for $4,000.
Tim Scott, resident agent in charge for DEA's bureau in Colorado Springs, said he's seen marijuana returns as high as $6,000 in New York and $7,000 in Arkansas.
The dollar signs have out-of-staters moving here by the droves to cash in, officials say.
To put it into perspective, five people each growing 99 plants would produce about 495 pounds of marijuana every 90 days, or about 1,980 pounds a year. That can be sold locally for a profit of about $3.9 million, officials said. It can be sold out of state illegally for a whopping $7.9 million.
"That's why they're willing to take that chance" to cultivate illegal grows, Lucero said.
Big busts in Pueblo
Since March 31, the Pueblo County Sheriff's Office and DEA agents have raided 23 illegal grows and arrested 35 people. Of those arrests, 26 people have been from out of state, all but one with ties to Florida. At least six residents were Cuban nationals, the Sheriff's Office said.
Last week, law enforcement officials and others cleared 1437 N. Dailey Drive in Pueblo County, where the Sheriff's Office said the Radosti family was operating the largest illegal grow found in the county - 609 plants.
Two of the residents had ties to Florida and a third was from Tennessee, deputies said.
Neighbors weren't suspicious at first. They couldn't smell anything and didn't question when the Radostis finished the 6-foot privacy fence started by the previous owners, neighbor Paula Wilson said. Other than a few run-ins with the Radostis' loose dogs, neighbors never had any issues, she said.
But on the relatively secluded road, Wilson said people started to notice cars with out-of-state license plates that frequently visited the home.
"This is why we're out here, because it's a quiet area, so you don't expect to see that," Wilson said.
Officials from bordering states say Colorado weed is causing them trouble as well.
Kansas patrolmen weekly seize marijuana leaving the state or cash coming back, Scott said. Suthers recalled his last month as Colorado Attorney General, when he announced a 32-person bust in Denver where people were flying marijuana products to Minnesota and Iowa.
In 2015, police in at least 33 states reported intercepting Colorado marijuana, according to a Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area report.
"You have to understand what Colorado is," the DEA's Scott told the City Council in April. "Afghanistan is the source country for heroin. Venezuela and Colombia are source countries for cocaine. Mexico is the source country for methamphetamines. You are the source state for marijuana."
Raid includes local homes
Colorado Springs police are taking their time investigating alleged illegal grow operations in the city, Suthers said.
"If you just bust a bunch of mules - the folks immediately growing and selling - without being able to figure out exactly what the scope and reach of the organization is, it doesn't do much good. They'll replace those quickly," Suthers said.
Instead, the city is tracking drugs to "well-funded organized crime operations," he said. He expects those connections to lead out of state.
DEA agents told the City Council there have been busts in El Paso County and Colorado Springs, but they did not share details.
In April, the DEA announced a regional operation that resulted in 40 arrests and raids of 30 homes. Last week, the state Attorney General's Office denied The Gazette's request for the names of arrestees and the addresses of homes raided, saying the cases were under investigation and a court order signed April 7 prohibited the release of information.
One bust during the raid occurred at 17585 Spur Ranch Road in Peyton.
DEA agents were seen surrounding the home April 15, and neighbor Del Crawford said law enforcement officers spent the night removing items from the home. It now sits vacant.
Two weeks earlier, the residents remodeled one of two metal barns on the property, Crawford said. The previous owners used the barns to house horses and run a mechanics shop; they had a dog grooming business in their basement, she said.
Crawford said she never got the names of the people living there - two men, a woman and three children - but the mother once told her she was Vietnamese. According to property records, the home is owned by David Nguyen, who has a Washington address. Nguyen purchased the home in August.
The residents "were not particularly friendly people," Crawford said, but she never suspected them to be involved in illegal activities.
She didn't smell marijuana and "there was never even any cars parked out in front of the house," Crawford said.
"I knew nothing about their activities there, but I found out later they had told several of the neighbors that they had bought the house to grow marijuana," Crawford said.
Without giving addresses, DEA agents showed City Council photos of other home grows busted in the city, some occurring in January.
Some homes had hazardous renovations, 6-foot plants, and chemicals banned in the United States, Scott told the council. One home had such poor ventilation that mold Scott described as "brown goo" seeped out of the siding.
During a raid of The Lazy Lion, a members-only cannabis bar on East Bijou Street, officials learned that chemicals used to grow marijuana plants were being dumped into the city's sewage system, Scott told the council. He didn't say when the raid occurred, but authorities served a search warrant at the business on Jan. 26.
Authorities have not announced arrests following recent raids.
Closer look at home grows?
Colorado Springs will hear similar stories once agents start busting local grows, Suthers said. He hopes the busts prompt voters to crack down on home grows.
The City Council has passed numerous ordinances to restrict marijuana operations by banning recreational grows and new cannabis clubs, placing a year-long moratorium on medical marijuana businesses and restricting plant counts to 12 per household, regardless of how many people live in a home.
Suthers wants to ban home grows. He believes voters will, too, after they learn about the illegal grows across town.
"My guess is it will be pretty close, and after maybe another six months of busts and things like that, and education about how large the problem is, I think they may well be willing to do away with local grows," Suthers said. "I don't see that the public is ready to totally revoke (Amendment) 64, but I think they may be ready to take another look at home grows."
If Pueblo is any indication, Suthers may be right.
Lucero credits the frequent busts there to the community. After the DEA busted five grows March 30, residents started turning in their neighbors, he said.
"I think we have a long way to go, but I think we're sending a pretty clear message that if you're growing marijuana illegally here and trying to take advantage of the law here in Pueblo County we're going to catch you and address it," Lucero said.
"Frankly, I think citizens here are tired of it."
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