SAGUACHE — Since marijuana came to town, things have gotten worse for law enforcement, Saguache Sheriff Dan Warwick says and it doesn’t look like that is going away any time soon.
Warwick spoke to reporters following last week’s marijuana moratorium/work session meeting with commissioners on the problems that have plagued the county since the legalization of the drug. Although the work session was specifically scheduled to discuss a marijuana moratorium, it was simply titled “moratorium.” One of those attending the work session remarked that it did not appear, given the fact commissioners would not accept comments at the meeting, that they wanted anyone to know the county is even considering a moratorium.
The county estimates there are currently 24 growers and six dispensaries but only five of these operations are paying excise taxes. Excluding access and permit fees, the excise taxes collected on the grows this year so far is $72,846.42. Warwick remarked that his office is not having problems with the legal growers, but those who choose to grow illegally.
Warwick estimated following the meeting that there are probably 100 illegal cannabis grows in Crestone alone, a problem his department cannot possibly address given their reduced work force. During a recent illegal marijuana operation bust in Bonanza, Drug Enforcement Agency officials admitted there are so many illegal operations statewide they do not have either the manpower or the funding to address them all.
Currently the sheriff’s office is down to five — three deputies, the undersheriff and the sheriff. One of the five is deputy Wayne Clark who is also working code enforcement for the county.
This isn’t counting Officer Elke Wells, who is not available for patrol because she is assigned to a full-time security position at the courthouse. Another deputy is out on medical leave and there are two open positions unfilled, Warwick said. Wells used to cover Crestone once a week but now is unable to do that, with her new position.
The town of Saguache also needs a full-time officer but that contract has expired, he observed. The sheriff’s office is funded for eight plus Wells’ position, but when he took office, Warwick explained, the funding was for nine plus an officer for the town. Some county residents have suggested that the county’s recent cut in sheriff’s office personnel is to give those growing illegally a break.
Changing laws, circumstances
For quite some time it was thought that with a variance, individual growers could cultivate 99 plants, but that has changed, Warwick said. Now the state has revised the law and the limit is 12 plants per residence. To get a variance, growers must pay for permits.
At first pot growers wishing to set up shop in Saguache County may have thought it was a grower’s paradise, but that was before the excise tax was enacted and the market demand dropped. Before marijuana was selling for 22-24 a pound and now it has dropped to half of that. If Alamosa allows pot sales the prices here will drop dramatically, Warwick pointed out. Some, however, will still buy in the area for reasons of anonymity, he said.
Once other states begin legalizing the drug, sales and demand will drop even further, Warwick noted. And administrative costs in the county, especially code enforcement expenses, have increased, with the county calling for a full-time versus a part-time code enforcement officer.
Pot-related crimes, courts
Once marijuana was legalized, Warwick said law enforcement officials began experiencing a notable increase in ID thefts, property crimes and other offenses. Warwick believes pot legalization also leads to the use of hard drugs, because pot growers “can grow it, process it, package it and then trade it for their drug of choice.”
Currently the jail is filled with those arrested in homicide cases, burglaries, drug cases and gang-related activities. The antiquated 21-bed facility built in the 1950s is regularly housing 26-27 inmates, with some having to sleep on the floor. “In the past, 15-17 was busy,” he commented. “The numbers are up and there’s no end in sight. We could at least breathe at 21.”
He points to the pre-sentencing system as “moving slowly” and says defense attorneys don’t seem to be able to get their acts together, scheduling numerous court appearances. “I blame the courts heavily,” Warwick said frankly. “The judges will say they can’t take guilty pleas and the defendants have to talk to their public defenders. I don’t understand.”
The only solution, he said, is to get involved with state legislators and “get this thing working.”
New jail off the table
Warwick says his preliminary budget is about the same this year. Although by law, law enforcement should be a priority in the county, Warwick says there is only a three percent increase in the budget, including salaries.
Salaries in like-sized counties start at $40,000 a year for deputies. Saguache deputies start at $28,000, but right now all deputies on the force are at $32,000. Other counties this size have as many as 14 total in their law enforcement ranks. The lower pay makes it almost impossible to be competitive, he indicated, and the county has a hard time attracting good deputies. Jail salaries are even lower at $9.80 an hour.
“Nothing can be done to build a new jail,” Warwick announced. “We can’t put it back on the ballot until 2018.” Before that could happen, Warwick says, he would have to come up with the money to hire an architect and run the numbers to demonstrate costs. Grants are a great idea, he conceded, but they are few and far between and require matching funds — also a grant writer.
The BOCC will not commit money to the project and it isn’t just the jail the county would be committing to, but personnel, equipment, vehicles and other additional items, he added. He is not sure the public would ever support a sales tax to build the new jail, far less a courthouse annex to accommodate the overflow from the outdated Saguache courthouse.
The inmate housing costs out of county are currently costing Saguache County money that could go to at least begin building a jail by securing fencing, pouring a foundation, putting in electric and a well, etc. It costs about $45 a day to house outside the county, versus about $15 a day in- county. A 50-bed jail could eventually help pay for itself by housing inmates from other counties, he said.
The excise tax was initially earmarked for “youth services, land use code enforcement, county infrastructure, marijuana program administration costs, and other General Purposes of the County…” as stated in the ballot initiative. Privately commissioners said law enforcement would be included in the “general purposes section” of the marijuana pie. To date, not only do the excise tax funds seem to be less than anticipated, but law enforcement needs have gone to the bottom of the list.