In four years, Denver has become a pot shopping capital of the United States.
Regulators have approved 162 recreational marijuana licenses in the city alone and a total of 286 in the metro area — nearly three-fifths of recreational licenses in the state.
It has also grown into an epicenter of illegal marijuana cultivation, often by organized groups hoping to keep under the radar of police detection. One persistent problem with assessing the full extent of criminal activity, with whether legal marijuana has affected crime rates in the Denver area — or statewide for that matter — is the lack of consistent and reliable data from police agency to police agency.
But what is known from available records is that illegal cultivation cases quintupled from 2014, the first year of recreational marijuana in Colorado, to 2017 in Denver and four neighboring counties.
Those total 590 cases, half of all illegal growing prosecutions statewide, district court records show. Nearly all those cases involved felony charges.
There is no letup in sight. A Denver-area raid in August, which hit nearly 100 homes, might be surpassed soon, said Ray Padilla of the Colorado Drug Investigators Association.
“Multiple investigations including thousands of homes” are underway, “most of them in excess of five (homes) to several hundred,” he said.
“We’re trying to control something that’s out of control.”
Denver has led the way in illegal seizures. In 2016 and 2017, eight tons of marijuana passed through its crime lab.
Its seizures have doubled since 2015.
Similarly, Aurora reported a doubling of seized marijuana in 2016 and 2017, exceeding a ton per year. The Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a federally funded anti-marijuana task force, reported an even more dramatic growth in marijuana seizures in Denver’s north and west metro areas, which include most Adams and Jefferson County police agencies.
That’s where the agreement ends.
In Aurora, Denver’s largest suburb, drug investigators have sworn in court that illegal marijuana operations have been linked to a growing number of violent crimes.
Sgt. Scott Pendleton, the leader of what is informally known as Aurora’s “weed team,” says the increasingly bold and broad ads for marijuana on Craigslist and Facebook present “low-hanging fruit for a robbery.”
In addition, “we’ve seen an increase in the number of organized crime groups,” he said. “Our numbers of violent crime have increased as well.”
But Aurora lacks a statistical record of those marijuana-related crimes.
Denver, which keeps such a record, concluded in a recent report that, aside from illegal cultivation, marijuana-related crime amounts to a tiny sliver of crime in the city: three-tenths of 1 percent.
It also reported that marijuana-related crimes dropped sharply, from 267 in 2016 to 199 in last year. Citywide, just 60 of those were classed as outside the industry, a common target for burglaries.
Denver defines marijuana-related as “crimes that have a clear connection or relation to marijuana. Crimes that have an incidental relation to marijuana are not included.”
The Denver Police Department told The Gazette that one-eighth of its homicides last year were marijuana-related. It has not responded to a records request for marijuana-related homicides in other years.
One measure of potential violence that Aurora has tracked is gun possession.
Its records show that seven guns were seized in marijuana cases from 2009 through 2013 and 22 from 2014 through 2017, including 10 in 2016.
This year, Aurora seized six guns from a single house.
The case began with a call from a neighbor to a large suburban house on Quemoy Street.
The house was giving off “a strong odor of marijuana,” the neighbor said, “and it is bothersome.”
Investigator Scott Cooper reported he could smell marijuana from several houses away.
When police knocked, two men inside pretended not to be home.
Finally, police broke the door down, encountering tenants Brian Romine and Robert Laubach, who had rented the house for a hefty $5,500 per month.
They also found 343 marijuana plants, a suitcase full of dried marijuana and a cache of guns.
Two were loaded: a black Beretta and a Titan revolver. The other four were long guns, including an AK-47.
Romine denied exporting any of that marijuana. Asked if he was giving away what he didn’t use, he smiled and said, “Yeah, donating,” according to the criminal complaint.
Investigator Cooper said this: “Based on your affiant’s training and experience, your affiant knows that the Aurora Police Department has responded to an increasing number of home invasions, robberies, shootings, burglaries and homicides directly linked to illegal marijuana cultivation and distribution activities in the city of Aurora within the last few years.”
Guns aren’t the only hazard of illegal marijuana businesses.
Last year, an anonymous tip led Aurora police to another suburban house.
The caller reported smelling growing marijuana and a lot of traffic coming and going, including out-of-state cars and a U-Haul truck.
Police found two men with Minnesota driver licenses, James Schulte and Joseph Thomey, at the back of the house.
Inside they found a sophisticated system for extracting potent concentrates from marijuana.
Their search also uncovered pounds of concentrates, labels marked Elevated Extracts and what Sgt. Pendleton described as enough flammable liquids to blow up the house and several neighbors
There was a 10-gallon tank of pure ethyl alcohol, a gallon cylinder of compressed butane and 5 gallons of isopropyl alcohol.
“I went holy cow. They had more than most of our commercial” infusion facilities, Pendleton said.
Alan Buchholz, the case investigator, also linked illegal marijuana businesses with other crimes.
“Marijuana cultivation operations are often targeted for their marijuana plants and finished marijuana products, leading to burglaries and home invasion robberies,” he said.
As city investigators zero in on organizations growing marijuana and making concentrates for export, more growers are turning to outlying counties where land is ample and police are scarce.
Elbert County, for example, filed two illegal cultivation cases in 2014 and 2015 — and 28 in the two years since.
It also claimed $373,000 last year from a state grant program to counties struggling to control the illegal trade, more than all other counties combined.
Despite that help, “nothing has stemmed it,” Sheriff Shayne Heap said. “It just continues to go up.”
The state Division of Criminal Justice Statistics tried to assess marijuana-related crime in 2016 in response to a legislative mandate.
That report came to few conclusions, particularly relating to law enforcement, partly because too much of the available information dated to 2014.
As a result, “it is too early to draw any conclusions about the potential effects of marijuana legalization or commercialization,” the division reported.
“For example,” the report noted, “the diversion of marijuana out of Colorado is not tracked in any systematic way.”
Division spokeswoman Patricia Billinger said that to her knowledge Denver is the only Colorado city attempting to count marijuana-related crimes.