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NDIC seal linked to Home page. National Drug Intelligence Center
Colorado Drug Threat Assessment
May 2003



Map showing the state of Colorado and its major transportation routes, its location in relation to other states, and the area known as the Front Range.

Note: This map displays features mentioned in the report.

Colorado ranks twenty-fourth in population among U.S. states with more than 4.3 million residents. Approximately 69 percent of the state's population is concentrated in Colorado's Front Range, which includes Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Denver, Douglas, El Paso, Jefferson, Larimer, Pueblo, and Weld Counties. Douglas County, located southwest of Denver, was the fastest-growing county in the United States each year between 1990 and 2001. Colorado is ethnically diverse, which makes it possible for drug distributors of all ethnic backgrounds to blend easily with the resident population.

Fast Facts
Population (2000) 4,301,261
U.S. population ranking 24th
Median household income (2001) $49,397
Unemployment rate (2001) 3.7%
Land area 103,729 square miles
Capital Denver
Other principal cities Aurora, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, Grand Junction, Lakewood, Pueblo
Number of counties 63
Principal industries Aerospace, agriculture, construction, electronics equipment, government, manufacturing, tourism

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The primary drug market areas in Colorado are in the Front Range counties. Denver, the state's capital and largest city, is a primary regional distribution center for methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and MDMA. Wholesale distributors in Denver supply midlevel and retail distributors with these drugs in virtually all cities in Colorado, as well as cities in several other states. Colorado Springs, south of Denver, is a regional distribution center for a variety of illicit drugs, principally methamphetamine, cocaine, and MDMA. Greeley, 45 minutes north of Denver, is a significant regional distribution center for methamphetamine and cocaine distributed in Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, Wyoming, and other west central states. Boulder, also north of Denver, is a distribution center for marijuana distributed throughout the west central region of the country and is a primary national distribution center for psilocybin.

Colorado's well-developed transportation infrastructure and its central location in the western United States are ideal for the movement of licit and illicit goods into and through the state. Private and rental vehicles and commercial trucks frequently are used to transport drugs into and through Colorado. Couriers on commercial aircraft, buses, and passenger railways also are used to transport illicit drugs, although to a lesser extent.

Drug transporters primarily use Interstates 25, 70, and 76 and U.S. Highways 36, 50, 85, and 160 to transport drugs into and through Colorado. Interstates 25 and 70 intersect in Denver and are frequently traveled by Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). These two interstates provide access to many other U.S. states: I-25 extends from near the U.S.-Mexico border to Montana, and I-70 extends from Utah to Maryland. Interstate 76 in eastern Colorado connects I-70 with I-80 in Nebraska and is used by individuals transporting drugs eastward from Denver. U.S. Highway 50, which connects Grand Junction and Pueblo; US 85, which connects Denver and Greeley with Cheyenne, Wyoming; and US 36 between Denver and Boulder frequently are used by criminal groups to transport illicit drugs between drug markets. Law enforcement officials in Colorado commonly seize drugs on interstate highways, often as part of Operation Pipeline initiatives.

Operation Pipeline

Operation Pipeline is a national highway interdiction program supported by the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC). Drug seizures from private vehicles are reported to Operation Pipeline by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies operating nationwide along the highways and interstates most frequently used to transport illicit drugs and drug proceeds.


Denver International Airport and many small municipal and private airfields facilitate drug transportation into Colorado. More than 36 million passengers transited Denver International Airport in 2001, ranking it the fifth busiest airport in the United States. Law enforcement officials report that drugs usually are not transported on aircraft directly from foreign source countries into the state. However, Operation Jetway data indicate that drugs have been transported into Colorado on aircraft from states such as California, New York, and Texas.

Operation Jetway

Operation Jetway is an EPIC-supported domestic interdiction program. Drug seizures are reported to Operation Jetway by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies across the nation at airports, train stations, bus stations, package shipment facilities, U.S. Post Offices, and airport hotels/motels.

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Mexican DTOs based in Nayarit and Sinaloa, Mexico, that operate in several western and southwestern states transport wholesale quantities of methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, and marijuana into Colorado. Mexican criminal groups also transport wholesale quantities of these drugs, usually directly from sources of supply in Mexico. Mexican DTOs distribute methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, and marijuana at the wholesale level in Colorado, while Mexican criminal groups typically seek to maximize profits by distributing these drugs in both wholesale and retail quantities.

The percentage of Colorado residents who report abusing illicit drugs is higher than the percentage nationwide. According to the 1999 and 2000 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA), 8.9 percent of individuals age 12 and over surveyed in Colorado reported having abused an illicit drug in the month prior to the survey compared with 6.3 percent nationwide.

Drug-related treatment admissions in Colorado are at relatively high levels. According to the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division (ADAD) of the Colorado Department of Human Services, admissions to publicly funded treatment facilities for drug abuse increased from 11,757 in 1997 to 14,511 in 1999. Thereafter, admissions to treatment facilities declined to 13,109 in 2000 and 13,039 in 2001. (See Table 1.) Admissions for marijuana abuse were higher than for any other illicit drug from 1997 through 2001. Treatment admissions for cocaine abuse ranked second. Heroin accounted for the third-highest number of treatment admissions until 2001 when admissions for methamphetamine abuse surpassed those for heroin. Since 1999 treatment admissions for methamphetamine abuse have increased annually, while admissions for cocaine, heroin, and marijuana have declined.

Table 1. Drug-Related Treatment Admissions to Publicly Funded Facilities by Drug Type, Colorado, 1997-2001
  1997 1998 1999 2000 2001
Methamphetamine   1,748   1,931   1,554   1,710   2,037
Cocaine   3,182   3,798   3,432   2,768   2,699
Heroin   1,613   1,894   2,086   1,896   1,810
Marijuana   4,459   5,686   6,339   5,571   5,299
Other*      755      992   1,100   1,164   1,194
Total 11,757 14,301 14,511 13,109 13,039

Source: ADAD.
*Includes barbiturates, hallucinogens, opiates, PCP and other stimulants, sedatives, and tranquilizers.

In Colorado the percentage of federal sentences that were drug-related was lower than the percentage nationwide; however, methamphetamine and cocaine each accounted for a higher percentage of the total drug-related federal sentences in Colorado than nationwide. According to data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC), drug-related sentences constituted 31.8 percent of all federal sentences in Colorado in fiscal year (FY) 2001 compared with 41.2 percent nationally. Methamphetamine-related offenses accounted for 30.8 percent of drug-related federal sentences in Colorado compared with 14.2 percent nationally. Powdered cocaine accounted for 34.0 percent of drug-related federal sentences in Colorado compared with 22.1 percent nationally.

Drug-related crimes and violent crimes are common in Colorado but are decreasing. Violent crime in Colorado, including drug-related violent crime, declined throughout the 1990s. The Colorado Bureau of Investigation reported that arrests for drug-related offenses decreased almost 9 percent, from 18,330 in 1999 to 16,686 in 2000. The rates of juvenile and adult arrests for violent crimes per 100,000 population also declined from 1990 through 2000, reaching a level close to the record low set in 1980.

The financial impact on Colorado's government from substance abuse-related costs is significant. In 1998, the most recent year for which these data are available, Colorado spent over $845 million--approximately $217 per resident--on substance abuse-related programs. The amount accounted for more than 12 percent of the state's total expenditures. According to the Denver Department of Public Safety, a large percentage of these funds are allocated to law enforcement and administrative costs, and approximately 6 percent is allocated for drug abuse treatment and prevention.


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