Colorado marijuana regulators helping bust illegal marijuana grows

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Jun 21, 2007
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Colorado medical marijuana regulators have partnered up with local law enforcement agencies to help cities shut down illegal commercial pot cultivations and prosecute those running them.

Colorado is the only state with medical marijuana regulations that allow companies to profit from selling the drug, so strict business licensing requirements are making it easier for law enforcement to find, raid, and prosecute illegal marijuana cultivators.

Before a 2010 law requiring special marijuana business license for dispensaries, cultivators, and infused product manufacturers, those businesses operated without oversight. Medical marijuana users had to be registered with the state under the constitutional amendment passed in 2000 allowing its use, but businesses providing the drug did not have to be.

The change makes it clear who is growing it commercially, and who is not under state law. Before the regulations, police investigations sometimes fell apart when accused illegal cultivators claimed they were growing it for patients and provided patient cards as proof.

Police and state regulators say the new regulations now create a "bright line" for enforcement.

The Department of Revenue's Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division has a database accessible to law enforcement of all medical marijuana businesses that have met the initial requirements to continue legally operating under state law. Businesses that aren't in the database are essentially illegal drug dealers, the division spokeswoman Julie Postlewait said.

Denver police narcotics Sgt. Andrew Howard said the partnership with the revenue department has made it easier to investigate complaints of illegal commercial pot cultivations.

"We can just call them up and find out if they're compliant," Howard said. "If they say 'yes,' then we're done. Most of them (from the complaints received) are legal."

If not, police obtain a search warrant and begin an investigation. On Friday, Howard, Denver police SWAT and other officers were joined by the department of revenue's Chief of Enforcement, Marco Vasquez in a raid of a suspected illegal marijuana garden in a warehouse across the street from a Pentecostal church.

Vasquez said the warehouse owner had license applications pending for five cultivation locations, but not for the one raided Friday in an industrial park where police found 1,500 plants. That matter remains under investigation.

The raid was one of the first times the revenue department has participated in a raid on a suspect illegal marijuana business and is expected to be just one of many more. Vasquez, who joined the revenue department after 33-years as a Denver police officer and 3 years as chief of Sheridan's department, along with Paul Schmidt, a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent lead the state's efforts to bring the industry into compliance.

Figures from the department show there are 809 dispensaries, 321 infused product manufacturers, and more than 1,230 cultivations lawfully operating in Colorado.

Postlethwait said those businesses have met mandatory deadlines and have applications pending for marijuana business licenses. None of those businesses have been issued marijuana licenses because of the time it takes to verify other requirements, such as a criminal background check for owners and a close examination of records to ensure financial backing comes from within Colorado.

Whether those businesses face prosecution under federal law, even if they comply with state law, remains to be seen. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder earlier this month promised to clarify the Justice Department's position on state medical marijuana laws after federal prosecutors warned they might prosecute everyone from licensed growers to regulators.

Colorado's marijuana industry blossomed after the Department of Justice two years ago said it would be an inefficient use of funds to target people who are in clear compliance with state law. Now, the concern from the department is whether state medical marijuana laws amount to de facto legalization.

Of the 14 states with medical marijuana laws, only Colorado, Maryland and New Mexico have laws set up to regulate and tax marijuana businesses, with Colorado the only state to allow them to operate as a for-profit business, said Allen St. Pierre, executive director for Washington, D.C.-based NORML.

The District of Columbia, Delaware, Rhode Island, and New Jersey have passed laws regulating the business but haven't set it up yet over concerns between the clash of state and federal laws.

Of the strict rules for marijuana businesses that in theory provide all the information needed to make a federal criminal case, attorneys say they didn't really have a choice.

"The state can put up any regulations they want," said Ms. Danyel Joffe, an attorney that assists medical marijuana businesses comply with state laws. "It was put up or go out of business."


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