A 230-plant illegal marijuana grow that was raided in January 2017 by the Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office. (Provided by the Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office)

Colorado budget proposal calls for new task force to target illegal marijuana ops

Colorado aims to establish a state law enforcement unit dedicated to investigating and, ideally, eradicating illegal marijuana grow operations that have cropped up throughout the state.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s $28.7 billion budget proposal for the 2018-19 fiscal year included the allocation of $1.2 million of marijuana tax revenue toward the assembly of a task force within the Colorado Bureau of Investigation that would “investigate black market marijuana operations across Colorado.”

“Black market marijuana cultivation, distribution and exportation continues to increase in prevalence, especially in rural communities where local law enforcement agencies lack the resources necessary to coordinate an effective response,” Hickenlooper wrote in the letter to the legislative Joint Budget Committee. “The unit will help reduce the number of black market grow operations and the nexus to organized crime.”

The CBI task force is a necessary follow-on to efforts initiated earlier this summer to tighten regulations in the recreational marijuana law that illegal operations utilized as loopholes, said Mark Bolton, senior deputy legal counsel and marijuana adviser to Hickenlooper.

Earlier this year, the state enacted two laws that ratcheted down home-grow caps in residences to 12 plants from 99 plants and established a $6 million fund to help reimburse law enforcement operations’ efforts to curb illegal activity.

If approved, the $1.2 million from the Marijuana Tax Cash Fund would allow for eight new hires at the Colorado Bureau of Investigation for the task force: six investigators, a supervisor and an administrative official, Bolton said.

This special unit would help provide additional resources and expertise throughout the state, but could be especially critical in assisting jurisdictions in rural areas, where illegal grows have settled following increased crackdowns in urban areas, Bolton said.

“A lot of those rural counties just don’t have the same amount of resources,” Bolton said.

The CBI special unit also, in a sense, would make good on promises made earlier this year to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. In response to Sessions’ questioning the state’s ability to effectively and safely regulate marijuana, Hickenlooper and Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman listed actions the state has taken to combat illegal grows and out-of-state diversion.

They noted that they would pursue additional resources to bolster these efforts in the coming year.

“I think we want to do what we can to address this problem,” Bolton said. “I’m hopeful that we’ve put the infrastructure in place that we can really start to eradicate that behavior.”

If approved as proposed, the task force could be funded and created next summer.

Other spending proposals involving the Marijuana Tax Cash Fund include:

  • Allocating $10 million in the current fiscal year to address rural teacher shortages via “scholarships, incentives, tuition support and other methods”;
  • For the upcoming fiscal year, allocating $625,000 to expand the state evidence-based mental health program known as the Incredible Years;
  • Also for next year, eliminating the marijuana impact grant program for local governments, a $1.1 million expenditure, because “demand for the program’s grants had been only minimal.” That would require legislative approval.

Denver Post staff writer Brian Eason contributed to this report.