In the second announcement in two days, officials again made a case for how legalized marijuana has negatively impacted El Paso County.

Positioned in front of a pile of burlap sacks containing seized pot plants and sophisticated growing equipment, Sheriff Bill Elder, Colorado Springs Police Chief Pete Carey, 4th Judicial District Attorney Dan May and Drug Enforcement Administration Southeast Division Supervisor Tim Scott agreed that marijuana “is one of the biggest public safety challenges our region is facing today.”

Elder made similar claims a day earlier when announcing sheriff’s deputies have served more warrants so far this year — 64 — on illegal pot grows than all other crimes combined. Fifteen of those warrants were served in May, he said, and 11 in the last week.

“This is unprecedented,” Elder said. “Marijuana has sidelined a lot of our (other) work.”

It’s not the legal marijuana industry the officials are referring to but rather the black market — criminals who try to use legalization to hide in plain sight while growing excessive amounts of weed, shipping products across state lines and raking in millions of dollars.

Officials took turns listing the impacts marijuana legalization has had on their agencies:

May said prosecutors have been “overwhelmed” by a 38 percent spike in felony filings in the state in the last three years, with a 41 percent increase in El Paso County. While being careful not to place sole blame on marijuana legalization, it does play a part, he said.

“(The black market) is much greater than it ever was before we legalized marijuana,” May said. “I can’t explain the reason for that.”

Scott followed with statistics on the prevalence of marijuana as seen by his six-agent DEA team.

Marijuana investigations, he said, make up a third of the team’s caseload, with agents seizing 50,000 marijuana plants and 6,600 pounds of processed weed in the last three years. He compared the numbers to seizures of other drugs over the same period: 350 pounds of methamphetamine, 150 pounds of heroin and 100 pounds of cocaine.

“I don’t get tips on meth or coke or heroin,” Scott said. “95 percent of my tips are marijuana.”

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In addition to the “incredible tempo” by which his deputies have been busting illegal grows, Elder said the impact of legalized marijuana is also evident in the increase in population at the county jail, which hit a record high of 1,794 inmates last summer.

The office hasn’t changed how it does business; if anything they’re looking for ways to get people out of jail quicker, he said. But the count keeps rising.

“Either we’re doing one heck of a job better at arresting people or the influx of marijuana is creating a bigger issue on our community,” Elder said. “That’s anecdotal information, we don’t have stats to prove that, but I think the correlation between those huge jumps has something to do with marijuana.”

As a precursor to Elder’s jail overcrowding issue, Carey says marijuana has had the biggest impact on city crime: Sixty-nine percent of the city’s suspected impaired drivers test positive for marijuana; officers made 56 felony marijuana arrests last year; there were eight marijuana-motivated killings in 2016 and three in 2017.

Bolstering Carey’s statistic on marijuana homicides was May, who gave two examples.

The first was a triple homicide from 2016 in which Richard Allon Spanks and Haywood Eugene Miller Jr. were convicted in the shooting deaths of Marcus Williams, 21, Jacqueline Cline, 33, and Victoria Loftis, 23. The killings spurred from a dispute over the price of marijuana, May said, referring to the first incident on Carmel Drive in which Miller fought with reputed pot dealer Eric Stone before shooting him in the eye and killing Williams.

May also mentioned the Dec. 28 death of 23-year-old Cory William Forbush, who was shot in the parking lot of Kmart on North Nevada Avenue; Michael Parkhurst is accused of the shooting. That dispute started because one of the men was “shorted” on $75 worth of marijuana wax, also known as dabs, May said.

Aside from homicides, Carey said marijuana issues also are driving other crimes, like assaults, robberies and thefts, and when it comes to those, “there’s a lot more than three.”

A full rundown of those statistics was not readily available, but the department shared marijuana-related robbery figures as an example. Of the 484 robberies reported in 2017, 15 were connected to marijuana.

Elder repeatedly estimates the number of illegal grow operations throughout the county at 650. Carey is more conservative, clarifying that his department has 600 open tips or complaints about marijuana, which may include possible grow locations but not necessarily confirmed locations.

A map of where deputies and Metro Vice, Narcotics and Intelligent agents served the 64 marijuana warrants this year showed no part of the county is safe from black market marijuana. Grows were mainly positioned along the Interstate 25 corridor, from Monument down to Wigwam, and then exploding out east where Elder says criminals favor the remote location and easy access to water.

Those busts netted 5,252 plants and 786 pounds of processed marijuana, Elder said. On the East Coast, where officials say Colorado weed is most frequently trafficked and where it retails for about $3,500 per pound, that dope would pull in about $8.3 million, he said.

“That is an amazing amount of weed,” Elder said. “It is the direct result of what I’ve called the failed experiment of Colorado on how to keep track of and regulate the growth of marijuana.”

Though Tuesday Elder called the recent tempo of marijuana busts impossible to maintain, Wednesday he said the office doesn’t plan to let up.

“It’s not like we’re going to run out of business,” he joked.

(c)2018 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)

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