Marijuana growers worry that drug enforcement agents will raid operations
The arrival of spring has Colorado farmers planting, pruning, fertilizing and otherwise striving to produce a bountiful crop.
Many face common challenges such as varying fuel costs and weather. But some relatively new players in the agricultural industry face another uncertainty — legal concerns such as whether drug enforcement agents might show up at their door.
As the number of medical marijuana users and dispensaries proliferates under Colorado’s medical marijuana law, those who raise the marijuana distributed to patients face a growing number of questions about how their business is treated under the law — or will be.
Those questions include the degree to which the DEA in Colorado is willing to look the other way regarding violations of federal laws against marijuana production and distribution. Also in question is just how local ordinances and state legislation might affect the operations of medical marijuana growers and dispensaries, including possibly prohibiting some of them.
“I think there’s a lot of gray areas with our system now,” said Cameron Wilcox, co-owner of Herbal Outfitters in Rifle.
But he said all kinds of laws have gray areas that result in refinements being made, and that’s what needs to happen for medical marijuana as well.
Mark Radtke, a lobbyist with the Colorado Municipal League, hopes pending state legislation can do just that, making the medical marijuana industry a regulated one rather than one that’s now the center of so much uncertainty.
“I think it’s people all kind of feeling their way along, trying to understand what’s legal and what’s not. There’s some difficulty with that, so I think this will clear up a lot of those questions,” he said.
Here is a look at some of those questions.
STATE VS. FEDERAL LAWS
The Drug Enforcement Administration caused some surprise in the industry with its February arrest of a Highlands Ranch home medical marijuana grower who had boasted on TV about the money he was making.
“I think there is some anger and trepidation among medical marijuana patients, providers and dispensaries because of the rogue actions of the DEA in targeting medical marijuana providers in Colorado. At the same time, people getting into this field really need to know the law inside and out,” said Brian Vicente, executive director of Sensible Colorado, which advocates medical marijuana use.
Aspen attorney Lauren R. Maytin said those who follow the state law needn’t worry about the DEA, and so she doesn’t hear much fear of the agency from her clients who grow medical marijuana or are otherwise involved with the industry.
She notes the Highlands Ranch grower allegedly had too many plants for the number of patients he was caring for, based on what’s allowed under the state constitution.
“If you are not going to abide by the constitutional amendment that was voted on by the people of Colorado, you’re not operating legally, and the DEA should be all over you,” Maytin said.
Chad Carlos, co-owner of L.E.A.F. (Locals Emporium of Alternative Farms), which has dispensaries in Carbondale and Aspen, said he follows the advice of his attorney, and it’s his understanding that the federal government has said it won’t go after medical marijuana providers as long as they are in compliance with state laws.
Jeff Sweetin, special agent in charge of the DEA’s Rocky Mountain Division, said he can’t provide assurance to medical marijuana operators who want to be promised that if they don’t operate near a school, don’t brag on TV, etc., the DEA won’t pursue them for violating federal law.
“It’s very difficult to tell people what’s an acceptable violation of federal law,” he said.
Under the Obama administration, the Department of Justice issued guidance to the DEA regarding states’ medical marijuana laws. But it doesn’t say the DEA should stand down on marijuana, Sweetin said.
“It basically says that we will not use our federal resources to target medical marijuana users. … It doesn’t say growers, it doesn’t say sellers, it doesn’t say people who are making a lot of money selling weed,” Sweetin said.
He said while the DEA has targeted some growers, it hasn’t been going after any dispensaries, contrary to what some believe. But he said he couldn’t rule out doing so, as in a case where a dispensary might have ties to a foreign drug cartel.
The guidance leaves it to the discretion of the DEA to devote limited enforcement resources to cases that warrant action, such as where large amounts of money are involved, he said.
LOCAL, STATE LAW STEP IN
Efforts by local governments and state lawmakers are starting to provide more of a legal framework for how growers of medical marijuana must operate.
Rifle’s City Council, for example, recently passed a wide-ranging medical marijuana ordinance. Among its numerous provisions, it prohibits growing marijuana in dispensaries and allows grow operations only in areas zoned as light industrial.
Both Carlos and Cameron Wilcox, co-owner of Herbal Outfitters in Rifle, said they have their own growing operations in different locations than their dispensaries. And both spoke in support of the idea of limiting growing operations to certain parts of town.
Carlos said such operations aren’t appropriate for residential areas, and things such as having proper venting and safely wiring the electricity needed to run a lot of grow lights are valid concerns for municipalities.
Such a concern arose at the Grand Junction Census Bureau office when employees reported becoming sick from a foul odor, and police found a medical-marijuana-growing operation in the same building.
Rifle’s ordinance stipulates that growers must have proper ventilation and odor-control measures and adequate wiring, among other public safety requirements.
Vicente thinks the state Constitution allows primary caregivers serving just a few patients to grow marijuana anywhere. He compares it to making beer at home.
“If I wanted to home-brew I could do that in my basement. If I wanted to sell beer or become Coors, I need to get the correct zoning. I think I see that playing out here as well,” he said.
He said he believes the Constitution doesn’t allow cities to ban marijuana growing or dispensaries altogether, and cities that he believes essentially have done so are asking for a legal challenge.
Meanwhile, Colorado Municipal League wants communities’ residents to be able to vote on whether they want to prohibit dispensaries and grow operations. That allowance was added back into House Bill 1284 after previously being stripped from it. And the version that recently passed the House would let local elected officials impose such prohibitions even without a vote of the people.
FORCED TO GROW THEIR OWN
Vicente said House Bill 1284 as it not stands essentially would cut out third-party marijuana growers, making it incumbent on dispensaries to grow their own product.
He said third-party vendors are important, because they increase the availability of additional marijuana strains that might prove helpful to patients. But the legality of third-party vendors has been a murky area and, as a result, such growers have been hesitant to publicly press their case to the Legislature.
“These growers have been underground for so long; they’re still in a questionable legal place. They’re somewhat hesitant to talk to the press or lobby at the Capitol,” he said.