EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. - In 2018, deputies with the El Paso County Sheriff's Office took down 200 illegal grow operations. That pace seems to be slower in 2019, but is it really?
Lt. Paul Mynatt, who heads the county's Rural Enforcement Team, said busting illegal grows remains Sheriff Bill Elder's priority, but the focus has shifted a bit to interrupting the distribution chain.
Three or four times a month, deputies are making stops on the primary routes used to transport drugs. This year, they're able to concentrate on criminals who are 'higher up' the food chain.
Mynatt said low-level growers have gone away because of the pressure put on them by the Sheriff's Office in 2018.
"We still took out some mid-level, high-level players too, but now were finding it's going to be easier to attack the mid, high-level players because the small fish are somewhat gone. So, they're our main focus now, but it will take more time to get to those people and it's far more complex," Mynatt said.
Mynatt said just because they have shifted priorities, doesn't mean they aren't seeking out all levels of illegal grows. So far this year, 10 or so busts netted 785 plants and almost 12 pounds of concentrate.
El Paso isn't the only county that hit illegal marijuana grows hard last year. Teller County also made a large dent in black market grows, but this year, deputies are seeing something even more dangerous: Butane Hash Oil Operations or BHO's.
Just last week, deputies busted a lab in a subdivision near Florissant. The lab was in plain site on the back porch. Deputies discovered several boxes of butane cans, and more than 100 pounds of what's called marijuana "shake," which used for manufacturing hash oil. There were also several round disks of a highly concentrated, brittle-like substance called "shatter."
Commander Couch said last year the county busted just one BHO lab. This year multiple labs are under investigation. He believes criminals may be moving from illegal grows to BHO cooks.
"It looks like, and I don't have the proof, but it looks like folks are switching from doing that kind of criminal activity to the BHO labs to abstract a greater percentage of THC content," Couch said.
Couch said it's scarier than black market grows.
"They're using flammable liquids a lot of times to produce this BHO product - like propane, butane, isopropyl alcohol. Those chemicals have a low flash point. That's why they're illegal," Couch said.
He's asking the public to be on the lookout.
"If you work in a store and you notice a large purchase of butane - somebody comes in and they buy two cases of butane for a lighter - why don't you give us a call. That's not normal," Couch said.