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National Drug Intelligence Center
Colorado Drug Threat Assessment
Cocaine is a significant drug threat to Colorado. Powdered cocaine is readily available throughout the state, and crack cocaine is available in urban population centers. Cocaine is the drug most often associated with violent crime in the state, principally because cocaine distributors frequently resort to violence to protect their distribution operations and to collect debts. Mexican DTOs and criminal groups transport wholesale quantities of powdered cocaine into Colorado in private or rental vehicles and distribute the drug at the wholesale level. Hispanic and African American street gangs distribute powdered and crack cocaine; some gangs distribute powdered or crack cocaine at the wholesale and retail levels, while others distribute crack at the retail level only. Local independent dealers also distribute powdered and crack cocaine at the retail level. Retail distributors in Colorado typically convert powdered cocaine into crack on an as-needed basis and sell the drug at open-air markets or from crack houses.
Cocaine is frequently abused in Colorado. The percentage of Colorado residents who report having abused cocaine in the past year is higher than the percentage nationwide. According to the 1999 and 2000 NHSDA, 2.5 percent of Colorado residents age 12 and over reported having abused cocaine in the year prior to the survey compared with 1.6 percent nationwide.
Despite the fact that cocaine is readily available and frequently abused, cocaine-related treatment admissions to publicly funded facilities in Colorado are declining. According to ADAD, the number of admissions for cocaine abuse increased from 3,182 in 1997 to 3,432 in 1999, and then decreased to 2,699 in 2001, the lowest level since the 1980s. (See Table 1 in Overview section.) ADAD reported that 39 percent of cocaine-related treatment admissions in 2001 were for powdered cocaine abuse, and 58 percent were for crack cocaine abuse. Admissions for crack cocaine abuse have fallen steadily--from 67 percent of cocaine-related admissions in 1995. Caucasian males aged 35 and older were the primary powdered and crack cocaine abusers admitted for treatment in 2001. Among cocaine abusers, 58.5 percent smoked, 24.9 percent snorted, 12.5 percent injected, and 4.1 percent employed other or multiple means to administer the drug.
Despite the decline in treatment admissions, the number of cocaine-related calls to RMPDC has increased. In 1994 there were 71 calls to the poison and drug center concerning cocaine. This number decreased to 49 calls in 1995 and did not fluctuate significantly through 2000 but increased to 127 in 2001.
Cocaine is frequently a factor in drug-related ED mentions and drug-related deaths in the Denver metropolitan area. According to DAWN, in the Denver metropolitan area cocaine-related ED mentions increased from 1,072 in 1997 to 1,343 in 2001. DAWN mortality data indicate that cocaine-related deaths in the Denver metropolitan area also increased, from 68 in 1996, to 80 in 2000, and 126 in 2001.
Law enforcement officials in Colorado report that cocaine abuse is a significant problem throughout the state. According to the NDTS, 31 of the 68 Colorado law enforcement respondents who reported on powdered cocaine abuse in their jurisdictions indicated that abuse was at a high level, and 24 indicated that abuse was moderate. Crack cocaine abuse was regarded as high by 7 respondents, and 39 respondents reported that crack cocaine abuse was moderate.
Powdered cocaine commonly is abused at nightclubs and bars, while crack primarily is abused in residences and apartments. Many white-collar professionals reportedly purchase powdered cocaine for personal use at nightclubs, bars, and offices. Some crack cocaine abusers purchase the drug at open-air markets.
Powdered cocaine is readily available throughout Colorado, while crack cocaine is available mostly in urban population centers in the Front Range. According to the NDTS, 38 of the 68 Colorado law enforcement respondents who reported powdered cocaine availability in their jurisdictions indicated that availability was high, while 23 reported moderate availability of the drug. Crack cocaine availability is greatest in the metropolitan areas of the Front Range and was reported as high by 10 respondents to the NDTS and as moderate by 21 respondents.
Seizure data also reflect the ready availability of cocaine in Colorado. According to FDSS data, federal law enforcement officials in Colorado seized 59.8 kilograms of cocaine in 1998, 88.6 kilograms in 1999, 132.7 kilograms in 2000, and 69.3 kilograms in 2001. Law enforcement officials seized 44.7 kilograms of cocaine in 1999 and 110 kilograms in 2000 as part of Operation Pipeline and 20.8 kilograms in 2000 as part of Operation Jetway.
The percentage of drug-related federal sentences that were cocaine-related in Colorado was higher than the national percentage in FY2001. According to USSC data in FY2001, 51 percent of drug-related federal sentences in Colorado were cocaine-related compared with 43 percent nationally. Sentences resulting from powdered cocaine-related offenses constituted 34 percent of drug-related federal sentences in Colorado that year compared with 22 percent nationally. Crack cocaine-related sentences constituted 17 percent of all drug-related federal sentences in Colorado compared with 20 percent nationwide in FY2001. Further, from October 1998 to May 2001, 68 of the 86 OCDETF investigations initiated in Colorado were powdered cocaine- or crack cocaine-related. Although OCDETF investigations often involve more than one type of drug, cocaine was involved in more cases than any other illicit drug in the state.
Price and purity data for powdered and crack cocaine indicate steady availability in urban population centers in Colorado. Wholesale and retail prices of powdered and crack cocaine in the state are comparable to prices in many other states. According to the DEA Denver Division, wholesale quantities of powdered cocaine sold for $18,000 to $20,000 per kilogram in Denver and from $15,000 to $25,000 per kilogram in Colorado Springs during the fourth quarter of FY2002, a moderate increase from the first quarter of FY2001. However, DEA reports that bulk purchases of cocaine in Denver can reduce the price per kilogram to as low as $16,000. During the same period powdered cocaine sold for $650 to $1,200 per ounce in Denver and $600 to $700 per ounce in Colorado Springs. Crack sold for $800 to $1,200 per ounce in Denver and $500 to $1,100 per ounce in Colorado Springs. Retail quantities of powdered cocaine sold for $70 to $125 per gram statewide, while crack sold for $20 to $30 per rock in Denver and $25 to $50 per rock in Colorado Springs.
Cocaine purity levels are high in metropolitan areas, indicating ready availability. According to DEA, the purity of powdered and crack cocaine available in Denver ranged from 57 to 75 percent in FY2002 compared with 35 to 82 percent in FY2001. During FY2001 powdered cocaine purity in Colorado Springs averaged 50 percent at the retail level.
Cocaine is the drug most often associated with violent crime in Colorado. Law enforcement officials in Colorado report that there has been an increase in the number of gang-related violent crimes such as assault, carjacking, drive-by shooting, and homicide as street gangs distributing cocaine protect their drug operations and attempt to collect drug debts. Cocaine abusers also are prone to violence but to a lesser extent than methamphetamine abusers.
Coca is not cultivated nor is cocaine produced in Colorado. Cocaine is produced in South America, primarily Colombia. However, distributors in Colorado convert powdered cocaine to crack at or near distribution sites on an as-needed basis to avoid federal drug sentences that are lengthier for possessing crack than powdered cocaine. Most of the crack cocaine available in Colorado is converted within the state. African American street gangs such as Rolling 30s Crips and Crenshaw Mafia Gangster Bloods in Denver, as well as Mexican criminal groups and Hispanic street gangs in Colorado Springs and Pueblo, convert powdered cocaine to crack. However, some of the crack cocaine available in Denver is transported from other states such as California and Illinois.
Mexican DTOs and criminal groups are the principal transporters of wholesale quantities of powdered cocaine into Colorado. These groups transport most of the powdered cocaine available in Colorado from Mexico primarily through Texas, but also through California and Arizona. Cocaine typically is transported into Colorado in private and rental vehicles on interstate highways, particularly I-25 and I-70. The Colorado State Patrol seized 41 kilograms of cocaine from highway interdictions in 1999, 41 kilograms in 2000, and 58 kilograms in 2001. Cocaine also is transported into and through the state by couriers aboard commercial aircraft. In May 2000, 5 kilograms of cocaine were seized at Denver International Airport from a courier on a flight originating in Los Angeles and destined for New York City. Shipments may contain 1 to 12 kilograms of compressed powdered cocaine. According to the Denver Police Department, drug couriers traveling to or transiting Denver International Airport frequently use discount air carriers to take advantage of cheaper rates.
Colorado also serves as a transshipment area for cocaine destined for drug markets throughout the Rocky Mountain region and the Midwest. In March 2002 the Front Range Task Force in Arapahoe and Douglas Counties dismantled a Mexican criminal group that was linked to the Arellano-Felix DTO. The criminal group transported multikilogram quantities of cocaine to Denver, then distributed the drug locally and in Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Nebraska. Durango, which is located in the Four Corners area--where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet--is a major transit point for cocaine transported from California and Arizona. Much of the cocaine interdicted in the Four Corners area is destined for Boston, Chicago, and New York City.
Crack cocaine is not commonly transported into Colorado because crack distributors typically seek to evade the severe penalties associated with crack possession by converting powdered cocaine to crack at or near the point of sale. However, law enforcement officials indicate that some gangs in Denver and Aurora transport small amounts of crack cocaine into the area in private vehicles from Los Angeles and Chicago.
Mexican DTOs and criminal groups that transport powdered cocaine into Colorado also distribute the drug at the wholesale level. At the midlevel and retail level Mexican criminal groups, Hispanic and African American street gangs, and Mexican and Caucasian local independent dealers distribute powdered and crack cocaine. Some Mexican criminal groups operating in less populated areas of the state attempt to control all levels of distribution.
Mexican DTOs are the dominant wholesale distributors of powdered cocaine in Colorado; these DTOs typically distribute methamphetamine and heroin as well. Mexican criminal groups also distribute cocaine at the wholesale level, but to a lesser extent. These groups have ties to Mexican DTOs that maintain distribution cells in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas. Mexican criminal groups typically are family-based and vertically structured; each has a group leader who works with a single source of supply.
Hispanic and African American street gangs are the dominant retail distributors of powdered and crack cocaine, although at the retail level local independent dealers also distribute powdered and crack cocaine. Some street gangs distribute powdered or crack cocaine at the wholesale and retail levels, while others distribute crack at the retail level only. Wholesale distribution generally occurs within the gang, with higher-level members selling cocaine to lower-level members for retail distribution. The major gangs that distribute powdered or crack cocaine in the Front Range area are listed in Table 2.
Crack commonly is distributed in metropolitan areas of the state. There are more than 100 crack houses, some of which have been established by gang members from Los Angeles, in several of Denver's inner-city neighborhoods. Los Angeles gang members also make periodic trips from Los Angeles to Denver to sell crack cocaine because there is less competition in Denver than in Los Angeles. Local gang members often are recruited to assist in distribution. Local independent crack dealers are also prevalent in Denver and Aurora. The Aurora Police Department reports that approximately 10 percent of crack cocaine retailers in its jurisdiction are street gang members, and the remaining 90 percent are local independent dealers.
Distribution methods vary widely in Colorado. Wholesale quantities of powdered cocaine are distributed in a variety of settings, including residences and businesses such as restaurants, shops, and auto body garages. Midlevel and retail sales usually take place in nightclubs, bars, on street corners, or in private residences. Crack houses are popular in metropolitan areas such as Denver, but crack also is distributed on the street and from other venues. Kilogram quantities of powdered cocaine usually are packaged in cellophane-wrapped bricks bound with tape, and ounce quantities of cocaine typically are packaged in plastic bags. One-quarter-ounce packages of crack cocaine commonly are distributed in aluminum foil or small plastic bags.
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