Colorado: Marijuana Legalization is Not Curbing Illicit Trade

Marijuana growing outdoors.

In October 2017, Colorado news sources reported on the seizure of a major marijuana grow about 50 miles west of Pueblo. In these gently rolling hills spotted with juniper and piñon, a forty-acre grow had been established and mature plants were growing in the fields and hanging in a jerry-rigged drying shed. Eight men and one teenage boy were detained for growing marijuana valued at nearly $4 million. This and many other related incidents provide evidence that legalization of marijuana has not eliminated the illicit trade for this drug.

But advocates for legalization stated clearly that legalization would bring the illicit market under control. For example, in 2014, Jon Gettman and Michael Kennedy from Shenandoah University wrote: “an open competitive market for marijuana’s production and distribution will…reduce and eliminate participation in the illicit market.” So far, it’s not working out that way.

Here’s some of the other criminal activity related to marijuana grows that has recently destroyed the public peace:

  • The San Isabel National Forest was the site of a $7 million illicit grow that was found by a hiker. This was the fifth illicit grow found in this area. Illicit growers often set up their crops on public lands because they would lose their own land if a grow operation was found on it.
  • In Monument, Colorado, a significant grow operation was found on the grounds of a house situated on a huge lot across the street from an elementary school.
  • In the Whittier neighborhood of Denver, a man protecting his small grow operation shot and killed one teenaged boy who climbed his fence to steal some of his pot. He shot and paralyzed a second teen. His grow was across the street from the Ford-Warren Library. He was later sentenced to 80 years in prison.
Denver, Colorado panorama.
Denver, Colorado

Colorado Supplies Also Being Shipped Out of State

Hundreds of people have been arrested for running illicit grows in Colorado so they can ship them to other states.

  • In mid-2017, 74 people were charged in two different operations for their illicit grow operations, one in the Denver metropolitan area.
  • Sixteen people were indicted in March 2017 for running a large illicit marijuana operation that shipped product out of state. Eight of them had current or expired licenses to work in this industry.
  • In 2016, 40 people in Centennial, Arvada and Denver were arrested for running a grow operation in houses in each town. Their finished products were shipped out of state.

According to a report from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area office, the number of seizures of pot traveling out of state increased from 53 seizures in 2009 to 394 in 2015. These shipments were destined for 36 other states, most commonly Missouri, Illinois, Texas, Iowa and Florida. Of these shipments, 65% originated in Denver. The total weight seized was 3,586 pounds. Many experts estimate that only about 10% of drug shipments are seized.

The Public Deserves to Know the Truth

We’re not taking a stand on the point of legalization. That is up to the voters. However, anyone facing a decision on this issue deserves to know the facts: Opening up the market with medical dispensaries and retail stores will not run the criminals out of the business. This should be kept in mind when listening to advocates listing the pros and cons of marijuana legalization.


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.