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Prosecutor: Colorado can do more to fight marijuana black market

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EL PASO COUNTY -

El Paso County District Attorney Dan May said there are simple changes in state law that could dramatically reduce the marijuana black market, but there isn't the political will to make those changes happen.

"The black market is bigger than it's ever been in the history of the State of Colorado," May said.

Sheriffs deputies estimate there are between 500-600 marijuana grows in the county that are either unlicensed or have more than the legal number of plants. Commissioner Stan VanderWerf said there are simply too many grows for law enforcement to keep up.

"This typically has to be dealt with with large teams, typically SWAT teams and they have to go out there and do the job right."

It helps explain why a line in Governor John Hickenlooper's speech Tuesday's at the Colorado Counties Institute winter conference irritated some of the local politicians.

After acknowledging that black market marijuana has been a bigger issue in Southern Colorado, Hickenlooper said, "We added about $10 million of that funding to our police, local police and sheriffs to give them some more resources to address this issue."

VanderWerf said El Paso County didn't receive a penny of that money. 

When asked about why, Hickenlooper explained, "There is a process. Once you allocate that money, the allocation usually starts on July 1 and then they've got to figure out who deserve how much."

District Attorney May said the money is just a bandage on a bigger issue. He believes state lawmakers can do much more to reduce the incentive for criminals who grow illegally and ship their cannabis out of state.

His first proposal would be to establish a limit for the concentration of the psychoactive compound THC.

"Even Amsterdam has a limit and I believe it's 15 percent THC," May said. "It's illegal above that and they treat it like crack cocaine. We don't. We have waxes that advertise at 99 percent THC."

Another policy proposal would be to reduce the legal plant count from the statutory 99 plants back down to six as required by the Colorado Constitution.

May explained that the extra potent marijuana grown in Colorado commands a black market value roughly 4 times what it sells for in stores. Growing 99 plants can yield nearly 400 pounds of marijuana a year.

"They can sell at least one pound off of each plant, although some of these are three to five pounds," May explained. "Even at one pound, you're getting $4,000 per pound on the East Coast."

May has pitched his policy ideas to lawmakers but said the marijuana industry is just too powerful.

"I've had individual legislators say I'd love to bring that bill and then they come back and say, I can't get this through the legislature," May said. "The hierarchy up on either side of the parties doesn't want it to go through."

Some of his other policy changes include preventing all felons from working the cannabis industry. Current regulations only exclude certain convicted felons. He thinks industry representatives should be prohibited from serving on governing boards that influence marijuana enforcement and that a five patient limit should be restored for licensed medical marijuana caregivers.

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