Illegal Marijuana Spreading on Public Lands in Colorado

Marijuana grow on PIke National Forest. Photo by Douglas County Sheriff’s Department.

The Colorado Springs Gazette had this lengthy piece today. A couple of interesting points.

1. More people are illegally growing marijuana on public lands in Colorado.

In a state where growing and selling cannabis have been legal for years, illegal marijuana grow operations in national forests have been on the rise for at least the last three years, officials say.

In 2017, 71,000 pot plants were eradicated in the U.S. Forest Service’s five-state Rocky Mountain Region. That’s up from 45,000 plants in 2016, 23,000 plants in 2015 and just 3,000 plants in 2014 – the vast majority each year in Colorado. In a report to Congress in 2016, the Forest Service estimated each plant to be worth $2,500, making the street value of the plants eradicated last year in the Rocky Mountain region more than $177 million.

As a resident of a Colorado county that is popular among illegal growers, it appears that legalizing has the effect of bringing folks in from outside the state who grow it m/l legally and then sell it illegally outside the state. But theoretically that shouldn’t matter as much on public lands as it was illegal there and continues to be illegal there.

2. But officials say it is more of a threat to the environment than a public safety threat.

In his eight total years with the Forest Service, Delbon said he’s helped eradicate more than 100 illegal grow sites, and has never once seen a boobytrap.

“It’s not like you have snipers out waiting for people or law enforcement to come into the grow site,” Delbon said. “Fortunately, the experience I’ve had, even in California, the growers themselves are typically the low worker bees. (When a raid happens,) they want to get out of there and avoid arrest.”

Most grows, for obvious reasons, are way off the beaten track and far from recreation areas, campgrounds and marked trails, Delbon added. “So, for the vast majority of the public recreating on our posted trails, the risk is very low.”

3. And some of the folks doing it are part of cartels but no one is sure how much is due to cartels.

In a review of court files from several prosecutions stemming from raids in 2017, Colorado Politics found examples of Mexican nationals working in coordination with outside groups to grow pot on public lands. In plea agreements, growers described moving to the state to be “weed farmers” for $200 a day, while being supplied by and connected to trafficking organizations.

And while several nationals of Mexico and other Latin American countries have been arrested and successfully prosecuted for growing marijuana on Colorado’s public lands, it’s unclear how many of those grow operations have connections to organized Mexican drug cartels.

“Generally, we find that it’s a mix, whether it’s local residents or maybe some other group that comes into the area, but to specifically tie it back to cartels, that’s probably not appropriate to make those connections at this point,” Delbon, the Forest Service agent, said.

4. They are not sure that the increase is due to legalization.

Delbon said he can’t weigh in yet on whether there’s a correlation between Colorado legalizing recreational marijuana in 2012 and the increased number of plants being illegally grown on federal lands in the state.

“Maybe the better answer for me is it’s too soon to tell,” Delbon said.

I’m not sure how you can tell what forces are driving something unless you pick one (legalization) reverse it, and see what happens, which seems extremely unlikely.

5 thoughts on “Illegal Marijuana Spreading on Public Lands in Colorado”

  1. For the record, I’m very troubled by the impacts of pot farms on public lands.

    But do they really represent anything different from the ‘reforms’ being proposed for national forests — e.g., “putting them back to work” and dramatically increasing exemptions from National Environmental Protection Act review?

    Both situations involve small groups who want to use public resources for their own gain, without pesky environmental regulation slowing them down.

    • PW.. we don’t know how dramatically actual projects will increase due to the CE. I’ve attempted to find out how many times the 2014 Farm Bill CE was used, but haven’t been able to. In the past, folks have been hesitant to use CEs for a variety of reasons (and our timber industry colleagues around here didn’t want to use them either), so people don’t necessarily jump on the opportunity.

      Also, I don’t think these CE’s are for small groups using “public resources for their own gain” as many of them are fuel treatment projects and they have to be collaborative projects, as I understand, to use the old Farm Bill CE’s or the new ones, as well as a variety of other restrictions.

      It would be nice if the FS would open its PALS database to the public (and make sure that it is kept up to date). That will be one of my comments on the EADM process.

      • I wonder if a FS project can still be litigated, and more likely to be, if they use a CE. I was thinking maybe that is why we don’t see them used more? I can hardly wait “for putting them back to work”.

  2. @Bob I’m not against logging in national forests, but the “putting them back to work” language rubs me the wrong way. It implies that nature exists to serve us, and that if natural communities are not being used for our own benefit then they’re not fulfilling their duties.

    If we’re going to cut down more trees and turn nature’s bounty into human livelihoods and well-being, that’s fine. But let’s approach it with humility and gratefulness

  3. Yes, I agree, but also if we are not using nature’s bounty wisely for our needs as humans them we are being socially irresponsible.


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