Federal Drug Agency Gets Flack For Organized Crime Claims

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration is claiming that proposals to legalize marijuana in Colorado are causing an increase in organized crime, but the agency says it doesn’t have any hard data to back up such statements.

Now proponents who worked to push pot legalization measures in Denver and throughout the state are crying foul over what they say are baseless claims.CBS Channel 4 news in Denver broadcast a story on Saturday featuring DEA special agent in charge Jeffrey Sweetin.

In the spot reported by anchor Karlyn Tilley, Sweetin cites a law to legalize small amounts of marijuana in Denver and a failed state ballot initiative to do the same thing as making Colorado a good market for drugs and organized crime.

Denver voters passed an initiative legalizing personal possession of up to an ounce of the substance for adults 21 years and older in 2005, and another measure to make such cases a “lowest law enforcement priority” for police in 2007.

A state ballot measure to legalize an ounce of pot for adults failed by approximately 9 percent in 2006.

No hard data were cited in the Channel 4 story regarding the reported increase in organized crime, and there was a good reason, according to a drug agency spokesman.

“I don’t think there’s any numbers I can give,” said DEA media representative Mike Turner about the crime connection to legalization efforts. “It’s just that the ongoing cases we’re seeing I think reflect the fact that that’s what’s going on.”

The Channel 4 story sparked harsh criticism from Denver resident Mason Tvert, the executive director of Safer Colorado, the pro-marijuana legalization group that was behind the ordinance efforts in Denver and the state ballot proposal.

“If the DEA were a student submitting a report on organized crime in Colorado, they’d get a ‘D,’ assuming they spelled ‘DEA’ correctly,” said Tvert. “It is unacceptable for our federal law enforcement agencies to be making such broad and baseless claims without any evidence to support them.”

Turner contended that special agent Sweetin was also trying to present the idea that pot legalization efforts have sent a message to criminal organizations that it’s OK to do businesses in Colorado–a similar claim that federal law enforcement officials made before such legalization measures were decided by Denver and state voters.

The broadcast on Channel 4 also used images taken from a methamphetamine raid conducted by the North Metro Task Force, a law enforcement coalition in the Denver area.

In the video, SWAT officers wearing gas masks carry an infant out of a recently raided meth lab. (Denver alternative-weekly newspaper Westword created a video essay about the raid in June.) Images from the raid were shown alongside pictures of marijuana, with no indication that the operation was not targeting cannabis drugs.

Reporter Karlyn Tilley did not return a request for comment regarding the broadcast.

Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature. Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state. Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters. She can be reached at erosa@www.coloradoindependent.com.

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