AURORA | Federal, state and local officials on Friday morning announced they have arrested 42 people in connection with the largest black marijuana investigation in Colorado history.
For nearly three years, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the local U.S. Attorney’s Office, local district attorneys and dozens of Front Range law enforcement agencies have been investigating and executing search warrants on dozens of illegal marijuana grow operations spread across the Interstate 25 corridor, U.S. Attorney for Colorado Jason Dunn announced May 24.
Authorities executed warrants on 247 homes and eight businesses spread across eight Colorado counties, according to Dunn. As a result, officials seized more than 80,000 marijuana plants, and two tons of finished weed product.
“Colorado has become the epicenter of black market marijuana in the United States,” Dunn said in a statement. “ … But this investigation may just be the tip of the iceberg. We will therefore continue to pursue back market growers and prosecute them to the full extent of the law.”
Tim McDermott, special agent in charge for the local branch of the DEA, said while a pound of Colorado marijuana can wholesale within the state for around $850, it can be sold for more than three times that price on the East Coast.
“The black market for Colorado is in every state in the United States — period,” he said.
State law allows up to 12 marijuana plants per residence for personal use, but some of the homes had more than 1,000 and many had hundreds, Dunn. said
Colorado and nine other states have broadly legalized marijuana use but it remains illegal under federal law. That has created tension between some state and federal officials.
But George Brauchler, district attorney for Aurora and the 18th Judicial District, stressed the investigation was a joint state-federal operation, not the U.S. Department of Justice imposing its will on Colorado.
“Make no mistake, we are equal partners in this,” Brauchler said.
State and federal officials said the nearly three-year investigation showed that illegal marijuana trafficking mushroomed after voters approved recreational use in 2012.
Dunn said Colorado has become the epicenter for a nationwide black market in marijuana.
Brauchler warned that Colorado is becoming “the wild West of weed.” He said the provision in the law that allows small-scale home marijuana cultivation opened the door to big, illegal operations.
Brauchler warned that other states considering allowing home marijuana plants could expect the same but added he was not trying to discourage them from doing so.
“I think states are entitled to do whatever they want,” he said. “But they need to know the reality of this.”
Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, which advocates for decriminalizing marijuana, questioned how prosecutors know that Colorado’s law attracted illegal growers.
“Did they conduct a survey of illegal marijuana cultivators to determine why they decided to operate where they did?” he said. “Are they able to know whether those operations existed prior to legalization or not?”
Tvert blamed the illegal operations on states that still ban marijuana, and said if they legalized and regulated it as Colorado does, there would be little illegal production.
The majority of the warrants were served in the Aurora area, with 120 homes or businesses searched in Adams County, and 63 buildings searched in Arapahoe County.
During the course of the investigation, which included at least four widespread raids since last summer — including multiple homes in Aurora — officials started legal proceedings to seize 41 homes, more than $2 million in cash, 25 vehicles and multiple pieces of jewelry. The homes boasted an average value of $400,000, according to Dunn.
“These grow operations are not occurring in abandoned houses or poor parts of the metro area,” Dunn said. “These are happening in middle and upper-class neighborhoods where many of us live and raise families.”
McDermott said a small number of firearms were also recovered from various homes, but the greater organization involved in the marijuana distribution was not particularly violent.
Several of the homes that were searched contained voluminous plants, which were often contained in sealed basement rooms with sophisticated ventilation systems. Many of the homes also had children living there, Dunn said.
“The black market in Colorado is thriving,” Dave Young, district attorney for the 17th judicial district, said. “I don’t think the citizens of Colorado want us to be known as the hub of marijuana distribution for the United States, but, unfortunately, that’s what it is now.”
So far, there have been 11 people indicted in federal court for having at least 1,000 pot plants in their homes, according to Dunn. They will face a minimum of 10 years in federal prison, and could face a sentence of life in a federal penitentiary. The remaining five people were indicted for having at least 100 plants in their homes, and will receive sentences between five and 40 years in prison.
Of the 42 people arrested in connection with the investigation as of Friday morning, 16 are being prosecuted in federal court, with the remaining 26 facing charges at the state level.
Several people indicted for crimes connected to the investigation have already made appearances in federal court, Dunn said.
Brauchler said 19 people charged in the 18th Judicial District made court appearances Friday morning. He said the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office expects to prosecute a total of 75 felony cases out of Arapahoe and Douglas Counties at the conclusion of the investigation.
No one has yet appeared in 17th Judicial District Court, according to Young.
Several of the defendants with Aurora addresses had their indictments unsealed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office Friday morning.
Most of the defendants were implicated in the investigation during a sweeping series of raids across Aurora’s Tollgate Crossing neighborhood Oct. 10.
One person, Shenqiang He, was indicted for manufacturing and possessing more than 100 marijuana plants, and maintained an Aurora home for that purpose. The home was located at 23945 Wagontrail Ave. in Aurora.
Two more people, Yi He and Hai Mei Zhong, were also indicted for using a home at 3217 S. Nepal Way for also distributing massive amounts of marijuana. Both He and Zhong were indicted for manufacturing and intending to distribute more than 1,000 pot plants in their Aurora home.
Another couple, Huanyu Yan and You Lan Xiang, used their home at 20050 E. Doane Drive to manufacture illegal weed, too.
“We have American citizens, we have non-citizens and I think we have people from different countries,” Dunn said of the people indicted and charged. “ … It’s a breadth of nationalities as well as citizenships.”
Brauchler underscored the prevalence of black market manufacturing in suburban communities, like the dozens that fleck the E-470 corridor in east Aurora.
“This is not an urban issue,” he said. “This is a suburban and rural issue that grows out of Amendment 64 … We cannot put the genie back into the bong — can’t do it — this is going to be an ongoing issue for Colorado moving forward.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.