Nearly 16,000 illegal marijuana plants netted in multi-agency operation north of Rifle
Thousands of illegally grown marijuana plants valued on the black market at more than $7.5 million were destroyed and six arrested during a multi-agency operation north of Rifle on Tuesday.
The grow bust netted nearly 16,000 individual marijuana plants over five sites on a mixture of public and private land northwest of Rifle Gap Reservoir, said Steven Knight, DEA resident agent in charge.
“There have been bigger (illegal grows) but in Colorado that’s a pretty big one,” he said. “That’s the biggest one I know of this year.”
Each plant is capable of producing roughly one pound of finished product per growing cycle. With an estimated black market value of $500-$700, the bust diverted millions of dollars from the illicit drug market.
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The six individuals arrested were all Hispanic males. Their citizenship status was not immediately clear but they will face manufacturing with intent to distribute charges and possibly others from the U.S. Attorney’s Office. No firearms were recovered in the operation.
“If any of those cooperate and give us information, we’ll build upon that,” Knight said of the arrested individuals. “And there’s usually some type of electronic evidence in the grows that we could exploit and determine who else is behind it.”
Dozens of agencies partnered together on the operation, which began in the early morning hours Tuesday and continued well into Wednesday.
“It’s hard work, it’s labor-intensive, it’s a big operation and it takes a lot of people to do it,” Knight said. “There’s no one agency that could have done that. It took a major team of all the state, federal and local offices and agencies together.”
Federal, state and local agencies worked together for the operation, including DEA, FBI, ATF, TRIDENT, Western Colorado Drug Task Force, Seventh Judicial Drug Task Force, Homeland Security, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Colorado Bureau of Investigation, Colorado National Guard, Garfield County Sheriff’s Office and Rifle Police Department.
Marijuana possession and cultivation is legal in Colorado, but the fields destroyed Tuesday were cultivated for the illicit market. For legal marijuana, Colorado has numerous regulatory requirements. In addition, marijuana produced for the legal market is sold by local businesses and generates tax revenue for education, public health, human services and more, the Colorado Sun reports.
Marijuana grown for sale on the black market follows no regulatory process and provides none of those revenue benefits. Instead, the revenue generated would have gone to drug cartels in Mexico, Knight said.
“In this case the money would have gone south,” he said.
It can be difficult to determine how long illegal grow operations have been in place, but Knight said there were signs that the areas had been seasonally active for multiple years.
“We don’t know exactly but it looks like some of these grows could be repetitive grows meaning they were there before just based on satellite photos,” he said.
The sites don’t just represent a danger to the agents in the operation or anyone from the public who might have randomly stumbled upon them — they also can be detrimental to the environment. In Tuesday’s operation, irrigation for some of the sites was supplied by diverting water from nearby streams.
Fertilizers and pesticides used can also pose a serious health risk. Although it wasn’t found in this week’s operation, the highly toxic and banned pesticide Carbofuran is becoming more common in illegal grows out West, Knight said, and was discovered at a similar operation in Las Animas County in 2019.
While the remote nature and rough terrain of the sites were likely beneficial to keeping the grows hidden, it’s still unclear why that area was chosen in particular.
“They might have some type of inside knowledge of the area, but it’s a great question,” Knight said. “They just go to these remote places and obviously they want to be where people are not.”