DENVER — An ongoing federal investigation is raising questions about the Colorado marijuana industry’s ties to illegal drug operations.
Widespread raids on Nov. 21 targeted more than a dozen dispensaries, warehouses, homes and grow operations. Agents are gathering evidence to prove Colombian drug cartels are coming to the state and are using the front of legal marijuana to make money
Since 2005 before medical marijuana was legal in Colorado, pot smuggling busts have increased 407%, according to an August report from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, which is connected to the White House National Office of Drug Control Policy.
Most of the pot was coming from Denver, Boulder and El Paso counties and was being smuggled primarily to Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Texas and Wisconsin, the report said.
Marijuana often is sold for twice as much on the black market in states where it is not legal, said Tom Gorman, director of the Rocky Mountain drug trafficking task force.
“You have a very desirable product with 48 other states that are potential customers. My God! What a market that is,” he said. “Our intelligence tells us, and all indications are (drug cartels) are going to move in if they haven’t already.”
Any drug cartel activity in Colorado creates huge potential problems for police and citizens, he said.
“(Cartels are) treacherous and they have no sense of morality,” Gorman said.
Drug-related violence has killed tens of thousands of people in Mexico in the past decade, but Gorman said we won’t see that level of violence. Cartels will keep a lower profile in Colorado to avoid drawing attention to their activities.
Meg Collins, executive director of the Cannabis Business Alliance, points to safeguards in place here to prevent drug trafficking, such as seed-to-sale tracking, and considers the increase in marijuana smuggling busts a good thing.
“I think it shows vigilance by law enforcement,” she said.
Collins, whose group advocates for the marijuana industry, said a change in federal law could eliminate the black market altogether.
“If you legalize (marijuana) in every state in the country, then you’re not going to see people transshipping across borders because it’s legal,” she said. Then “you can get it anywhere in your state.”
But such a change would require congressional action.
In federal law, distribution of a small amount of marijuana as a gift is treated like marijuana possession, which is considered a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a minimum fine of $1,000 for a first offense, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Sale and cultivation of fewer than 50 plants or kilograms is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 and the penalties increase from there.
“We have 21 states plus the District of Columbia that have legalized medical marijuana,” Collins said. “And that momentum is building and continuing to grow.”
Three months after the federal pot raids, none of the 10 target subjects have been arrested and federal agents will say only that their investigation is ongoing.