14 Chinese nationals accused of growing 3,000 marijuana plants

Authorities have arrested 14 Chinese nationals in connection with an alleged illegal pot grow involving more than 3,000 plants east of Rifle.

Authorities are investigating whether human trafficking using forced labor was involved in the operation off Mile Pond Road, north of the Colorado River.

The local multijurisdictional Two Rivers Drug Enforcement Team, or TRIDENT, and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration have been heading up the investigation. The arrests were made Monday.

Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario said the grow was occurring on a couple acres of a roughly 35- or 40-acre property. The property owner hasn’t been arrested at this point but an investigation continues.

Vallario said authorities had gotten a tip on the operation and some drug task force and DEA personnel were keeping an eye on things, which led to a traffic stop involving a U-Haul truck carrying perhaps as many as 1,000 plants. Six people were arrested in that stop, and eight more at the property, while some others escaped, he said.

He said he’s assuming most of the 14 aren’t in the country illegally, but that’s still being determined. He said language barriers have been a problem, including when to get the arrestees advised in court.

Garfield jail records show a range of inmates with what appear to be Chinese names being held on suspicion of marijuana charges. They include both males and females, from their 20s to their 60s.

Workers had been in the process of harvesting the crop before cold weather arrived, Vallario said.

He said the grow operation appeared to be a thorough one with a watering system and well-manicured plants three to four feet high, and a privacy fence surrounding the plants.

After authorities discovered the operation, “we started rounding up resources and pulling up plants and hauling them off,” he said.

County road and bridge workers used heavy equipment to help dig up the plants, and law enforcement vehicles escorted trucks during several runs to the county landfill to dispose of what plants weren’t kept as evidence.

Vallario is concerned that the operation fits with a trend of black-market marijuana grow houses in Colorado. He said a common denominator has been the use of foreign workers at the operations.

“We’re always concerned if we see that, is it a human trafficking thing,” he said, adding that he doesn’t think it yet has been determined if that’s the case in the Rifle operation.

He said it appears the case will be prosecuted at the federal level.

Vallario, who disagrees with the decisions Colorado voters made to legalize medical and then recreational marijuana sales and use, said one of the problems has been the ability of black-market growers to hide behind the complex laws and regulations applying to legal marijuana.

“There’s a lot of confusion right now on what is literally legal, what isn’t, what kind of loopholes there are,” he said.

“… We’re seeing more of these (illegal grows) and it’s time we’re not going to tolerate it in Garfield County,” Vallario said.

His personal views aside, he said that as sheriff he’ll defend the right of people to grow marijuana legally in the state.

“But if you cross the line we’re going to come after you and arrest you.”


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