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How the original 99-plant law grew Colorado’s marijuana black market

In the highly regulated marijuana industry, one big loophole was on Colorado books for years.

“It was unenforceable by us,” Teller County Sheriff Jason Mikesell said.

In Teller and El Paso counties, hundreds of plants in dozens of homes were able to be grown under Amendment 20.

“Great idea in theory,” El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder said. “However, there were enough loopholes in it that people began to grow 99 plants and then they discovered they could ship those off.”

Elder said it’s organized crime that was able to take advantage, allowing growing operations to get as large as more than 500 plants.

So where did the law come from? As Michael Hartman, executive director for the Department of Revenue explains, the extended plant count of 99 medical marijuana plants came from caregivers, those growing the plants for medical marijuana patients.

“The caregiver community really felt that they needed an extended plant count in situations where doctors would provide that recommendation,” Hartman said.

Mikesell saw the same issue as Elder.

“When we went to check on that medical marijuana card, if they couldn’t produce that, they could say, ‘Well it’s in the mail.’ So really, it didn’t give us an enforcement option,” Mikesell said.

Growing here just to ship it out to states where it’s illegal is where the operations can make big money.

Deputy Jeff Schulz with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office said marijuana grown in Colorado will go for three times as much on the east coast as it will here.

Schulz said it can be sold anywhere from $3500-$4000 a pound.

“Most of it goes to Miami where it’s distributed from there,” Schulz said.

“These are terrorist type cells that operate under the wire,” Mikesell said.

Mikesell told KRDO NewsChannel 13 it’s cartels and organized crime running the operations.

Sheriffs in southern Colorado said it’s Mexican, South American and Cuban cartels all growing in Southern Colorado. They said instead of these cells crossing the U.S. border to bring in marijuana, now they bring other drugs.

“We’re seeing more heroin, more cocaine, more methamphetamine using those same traditional routes they were using with marijuana,” Elder said.

“The prostitution, the sexual trafficking issues, these are the same people – there’s no difference,” Mikesell said. “It’s not something local law enforcement was prepared to deal with.”

When we sat down with former Colorado Marijuana Czar Andrew Freedman in November last year, he agreed with the sheriffs that it was a mistake.

“It’s a bit of an Achilles’ heel in our system right now,” Freedman said. “That invites organized crime. It’s as simple as that.”

We also asked Gov. John Hickenlooper if anyone could have foreseen these consequences.

“I mean, there are so many things that people were trying to anticipate,” Hickenlooper said. “Certainly, in retrospect, you look at 99 plants, which was in that original initiative, right? There are a lot of things the people would have changed if we could have crafted that more, more carefully.”

To be clear, both Elder and Mikesell aren’t concerned with those who are legally growing marijuana, medically or recreationally. Their concern is those who are growing illegally, taking advantage of the system.

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