Marijuana busts timed by law enforcement to undermine Amendment 64?

The Colorado Attorney General's office announcement of a 59-count indictment against Silver Lizard dispensary weeks after a law-enforcement survey showing medical marijuana was being diverted raised a question that's buzzed in the background amid the campaign for Amendment 64, the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act: Will cops and prosecutors step up and perhaps even time pot busts to hurt the measure's chances of passage?

When asked about this possibility, Brian Vicente, one of Amendment 64's primary proponents, doesn't wholeheartedly embrace this theory. But neither does he casually reject it.

Regarding claims that medical marijuana is routinely and knowingly sold by dispensaries for illicit purposes, and often winds up beyond state lines, Vicente says, "The big picture is, we have hundreds and hundreds of medical marijuana shops that are operating in a fully legally compliant manner. There appear to be some bad apples, and those businesses should be dealt with accordingly. But it's important that we don't simply overturn our state regulations, which are really working well, because of those bad apples. That would be a bad scenario, where patients would be forced to go to the streets, and we'd be handing over the distribution of marijuana to underground cartels. That's not good for Colorado in any way."

Agencies like the Colorado Attorney General's office, led by John Suthers, a longtime opponent of the medical marijuana system, see the situation very differently. Here's an excerpt from a 2010 letter written by Suthers to the Colorado legislature:

Embracing dispensaries or clinics as a means of commercially distributing marijuana will have profound adverse societal ramifications. Research consistently shows the adolescent marijuana use is a function of accessibility to the drug and social acceptance of the drug; (i.e., the more youth perceive smoking marijuana as a normative behavior, the greater their use of the drug). We've seen significant reduction in teenage use of marijuana over the last several years. Colorado's embrace of commercial dispensaries and the resulting perception that using marijuana is normative behavior, will change that trend. Liberalization of marijuana laws in Alaska, Holland and other places led to significant increases in teenage use. The research also shows that increased adolescent use of marijuana has a high correlation with more serious drug addiction, high school dropout rates and crime, including violent crime. The revenue generated from the marijuana industry will not cover the societal costs we will all incur.

Suthers's views haven't softened over the intervening two years. In his release about the Silver Lizard indictments, he specifically mentioned "Colorado's 'Medical' Marijuana," a report by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area detailing more than seventy instances when MMJ from here was sold or distributed illegally.

"This indictment and its allegation that medical marijuana was sold out of the back door of a dispensary for distribution to other states is consistent with information gathered by a recent Rocky Mountain HIDTA survey of Colorado law enforcement agencies," Suthers said in a statement. "It is becoming clear that as predicted in 2010 legislative hearings, Colorado is becoming a significant exporter of marijuana to the rest of the country."

Rocky Mountain HIDTA director Tom Gorman agrees -- and in a our post about survey's findings, he argued that the passage of Amendment 64 would make a bad situation worse.

Page down to read more about marijuana actions and Amendment 64. "There would be much more of a supply, and you wouldn't have to allegedly have medical cards to buy," Gorman told us. "So you could have tourists come in from all over the country to buy their marijuana here -- and even if there are rules about possession of an ounce or less, you could go to different retail stores. And there's no limitation on how much you can grow. So I believe Colorado would become a real mecca for marijuana sales and trafficking for the rest of the country. We're already seeing that."

Could we hear more claims like these, and see more high-profile arrests and prosecutions, over the next several months? Could be, Vicente acknowledges.

"Historically, we're used to law enforcement essentially airing these reefer-madness type allegations whenever they fear marijuana laws actually tip in a different direction," he says. "We have to keep in mind that there are many law-enforcement agents that really view the war on marijuana as a jobs program for them, and as long as they're able to go after people selling marijuana, they feel secure in their jobs."

As for the substance of Gorman's assertions, Vicente stresses that "we absolutely do not believe the passage of Amendment 64 will make Colorado a hub for interstate distribution. We believe a fully regulated system will ultimately lead to the elimination of the underground marijuana market.

"Law-enforcement officers often pretend to care about eliminating the underground market, but they've made really zero progress toward that goal over the past forty years. So we're moving toward a system that will eliminate the criminal market, and those who aren't following the rules will be shut down."

If Amendment 64 passes, what's to stop someone from buying the maximum amount of marijuana from multiple stores and then driving it out of Colorado? The law, Vicente believes.

"It will remain absolutely illegal to transport marijuana out of state after the passage of Amendment 64," he says. "It's currently that way now -- and its passage would untie the hands of law enforcement to focus on interstate issues rather than their current focus, which is arresting over 10,000 Coloradans for personal possession every year. Their focus could be on interstate transfers and arresting the people responsible rather than arresting adults for possessing small amounts of marijuana."

Then again, scare tactics have helped keep marijuana illegal for decades. Why wouldn't these messages work one more time?

"We think voters in Colorado feel law-enforcement resources should be focused on more serious crime," Vicente maintains. "And with the passage of Amendment 64, they'll have the time and resources to really focus on them."

More from our Marijuana archive: "Marijuana: John Suthers hits Silver Lizard dispensary with 59-count indictment."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts