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Marijuana Is Legal In Colorado, But The Illegal Market Still Exists


Cannabis is one of Colorado's most infamous exports. Marijuana is legal in the state, but it is illegal to take it across state lines. Cops admit they will never come close to eradicating the problem. The financial incentive to break the law is just too great. From Colorado Public Radio, Ben Markus has our story.

BEN MARKUS, BYLINE: You'd think it'd be hard to surprise George Brauchler. He's been a prosecutor in Colorado for decades.

GEORGE BRAUCHLER: I've never seen the black market for marijuana as robust and as expertly cultivated - forgive that pun - as I have right now.

MARKUS: Brauchler says that's thanks to legalization. People can grow small amounts themselves. There's a large, thriving industry. And for those who do grow illegally, sentencing is lenient. All of that, Brauchler says, makes this a great place to hide a black-market operation.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Today, Colorado announced a massive marijuana bust years in the making, with charges from racketeering...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: El Paso County sheriff's office busting another illegal marijuana grow operation this morning.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: This one east of Colorado Springs along Ellicott Highway...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: They're busting down doors and seizing marijuana plants. It's a scene that's played out at dozens of locations across the metro area today.

MARKUS: And these illicit grows are often found in suburban homes and expensive neighborhoods. Brauchler recalls one bust in a 55-and-older community a few months ago.

BRAUCHLER: Ultimately, they pulled out, I think, it was a thousand to 1,100 plants out of one home. So you got to wonder, how do you walk around in there without feeling like you're in that movie "Children Of The Corn" or something?

MARKUS: And in late May, the biggest bust of them all - 80,000 plants, 2 tons of finished cannabis product, all of it destined for out of state for the simple economics of it.

BRAUCHLER: Because you take a thousand dollars' worth a pound, I guess, of marijuana out here, and it's about four to five thousand bucks out in Florida.

MARKUS: But Brauchler says there are no recreational stores, and that's still the case for the vast majority of the U.S., especially in the South and the East Coast.

John Bolduc is superintendent of the Nebraska State Patrol. He says his troopers continue to seize a lot of marijuana on its way to places like New York and Florida coming from legal states.

JOHN BOLDUC: Certainly, Colorado is one of them. We see a lot of marijuana from Oregon. We see a lot from California. We're seeing some from Nevada.

MARKUS: The California Highway Patrol reports seizing almost 8 1/2 tons of marijuana last year. And over the last two years, another seven tons came out of Oregon. Cops in Colorado seem to agree that the problem is not licensed cannabis grows.

DEAN HEIZER: Well, because the regulated growers have way too much to lose.

MARKUS: That's Dean Heizer, chief counsel for LivWell, a large chain of marijuana dispensaries in Colorado. He's in one of his stores in the industrial section of northeast Denver. On display, walls and walls of products from vape pens to edibles.

HEIZER: Our plan is to - and goal - is to make sure that a consumer can go one place and get what they want.

MARKUS: He says so much money has been invested in these places and the grow operations that feed them that any association with the black market would be foolish.

HEIZER: And to be honest with you, the little bit of money that you might be able to make diverting product compared to the risk that you would take and the jail time that you might serve - and frankly, the headlines that you might make - (laughter) it's just not worth it.

MARKUS: But Colorado District Attorney George Brauchler says criminal activity is like water, it finds a way. Brauchler, a Republican, says the only thing that will reduce demand for Colorado marijuana is more states legalizing it and meeting their own demand.

BRAUCHLER: But I don't wish that on them. That's a decision for them and their voters. But just economics tell you that that's true.

MARKUS: He says as long as marijuana fetches exponentially more money out of state, Colorado's black market may never be stopped.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Markus in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ben Markus