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Marijuana drug ring indictment is state’s largest

Thousands of pounds of pot distributed across state lines

DENVER – State Attorney General Cynthia Coffman announced indictments and the take-down of an illegal marijuana grow operation that generated millions of dollars by sending thousands of pounds of pot across state lines over more than four years.

The investigation, code named “Operation Toker Poker,” began in 2014 based on an anonymous tip received by the Denver Police Department, and represents the largest drug ring bust in Colorado history, Coffman said.

Using the guise of medical marijuana caregivers, property managers and small business owners, the 74 defendants – 62 individuals and 12 businesses – involved grew an average of 100 pounds of marijuana a month that was shipped out of state to Kansas, Texas, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma and New York, officials allege.

Dismantling the organization involved the execution of 150 search warrants, and nearly 2,600 illegal plants, 4,000 pounds of marijuana and more than $3 million in assets were seized from the 51 cultivation and distribution sites identified in the Denver Metro area.

“We suspect that these seizures only scratch the surface of the amount of illegal drugs that were produced by this organization over time,” Coffman said.

With a going rate of $2,000 a pound, the ring allegedly took in more than $200,000 a month between January 2012 and spring 2016 when Denver Police Department, in conjunction with more than a dozen law enforcement and government agencies, began making arrests and shutting down grow operations in the metro area.

David Quinones, deputy chief of the Denver Police Department, said the first bust in the case was made in March 2016, with additional seizures occurring in May 2016 and January 2017.

Quinones added that the drug ring was unusual.

“It didn’t have the traditional leadership that we typically see in an operation. It was more of a business model with partnerships and people at various levels,” he said.

The defendants in the case are charged with 31 felonies, including: illegal marijuana distribution, money laundering, tax evasion, theft and attempts to influence public servants.

In addition to growing large amounts of marijuana, the defendants swindled friends and associates, including two former Denver Broncos players, Erik Pears and Joel Dressen, into investing under the impression it was a legal organization.

David Schiller, assistant special agent in charge for the Drug Enforcement Agency, said this is the largest such bust in Colorado history, but smaller operations are becoming more common across the state.

“The bottom line is, this is one operation of thousands operating in your neighborhoods, and you’ve got to pay attention,” Schiller said.

Liberal laws in Colorado are enticing out-of-state growers to move to Colorado and vitalizes the marijuana black market in the state and across the nation, he said.

While some of the individuals involved with “Toker Poker” were from out of state the majority were from Colorado, said Annie Skinner, spokesperson for Coffman.

“These are folks who are operating in plain sight. They are in our neighborhoods, they set up shop in private residences,” Coffman said.

Diversion of marijuana to the black market was a hot topic during the 2017 Legislative session with discussion on how to prevent it by limiting the number of plants allowed in residential properties.

Current law allows medical marijuana patients to grow up to 99 plants at a time, which can produce a staggering amount of product if diverted to the black market, Schiller said. “It’s out of control.”

The Legislature tightened down on that with passage of House Bill 1220, which limits residential growths to 12 plants unless local jurisdictions allow for a larger number.

But the increased restriction on plant growing doesn’t go into effect until Jan. 1, 2018, and would not affect illegal operations like the one indicted Wednesday as they operate outside of the law.

Which is where public education, and cooperation, on the issue comes in.

“The DEA is always about enforcement, Denver is always about enforcement, our local partners are about enforcement but we’ve learned we can’t arrest our way out of this, we never will, so we do press conferences to educate Coloradans of what’s going on,” Schiller said.

Lperkins@durangoherald.com

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