Marijuana: Denver City Council Mulling Limits on Non-Licensed Grows

The City and County of Denver's Department of Safety and Well-Being unanimously approved an amendment to Denver's municipal code that places a 36-plant limit on any non-residential zone lot in the city, except in a licensed marijuana cultivation facility. The vote will now go forward to the Denver City Council.

During a Tuesday committee meeting that cited "several health and safety concerns," city officials contended that Denver's dense, urban environment is subject to a variety of risks associated with large, unlicensed marijuana grows. The twelve-plant limit in residential units already in place doesn't tackle non-residential lots in Denver, and Denver's Executive Director of Marijuana Policy Ashley Kilroy says that's a problem.

"This is an unintended consequence of legalized marijuana," she said during the committee meeting. "We didn't anticipate that individuals would get together and grow collectively in these warehouse businesses."

Because each adult over 21 in Colorado is allowed to grow six pot plants for recreation, some growers are opting to cooperatively grow their plants in large operations. The Denver Department of Safety believes many of these operations put employees and surrounding property owners at risk due to dangers such as overloaded electrical systems, hazardous structural features, blocked exits and mold.

Bill request 15-0109, co-sponsored by the Denver Fire Department, would basically outlaw growing more than 36 plants per 3,000 square-foot lot in Denver while also prohibiting connecting grows — medical caregivers included.

One of the main reasons given by the Department of Safety for drafting the amendment was putting a dent in the black market. Kilroy cited a state study during the meeting that says around 40 percent of Colorado cannabis comes from non-licensed grows.

"We've seen 1,000 to 2,000 plants of non-licensed, non-tracked marijuana (in these grow operations)," she said. "This creates opportunity for crime and diversion out of state."

Cannabis grown in non-licensed recreational facilities by private caregivers is required to be donated to users for free under Colorado law (They can charge patients service fees for growing costs), but Denver dispensary owner Luke Ramirez and many others in the regulated industry aren't buying it.

"2,000 plants will produce about 4,000 pounds of marijuana per month. The idea that 4,000 pounds is given away to medical patients is completely unrealistic," he said during the meeting. "They (non-licensed growers) grow just as much marijuana as I do, if not more, and when it hits the black market, it’s priced less than mine, but they don't have to pay taxes or stay up to compliance."

Ramirez warned that continued diversion out of state from non-licensed marijuana could entice the federal government to start enforcing stricter drug laws in legal states.

Not everyone at the meeting supported the bill, however. Larisa Bolivar, executive director of the Cannabis Consumers Coalition, said that while she understood the need to address cannabis public safety issues and diversion, the bill was too broad.

"Marijuana patients and caregivers have already been severely limited by city ordinances," she said during the meeting. " This bill neglects those who are operating legitimately."

One member of the City Council (though not a part of its Safety & Well-Being Committee) wondered why there should be home grows in Denver at all.

"Why should there be any unlicensed unregulated activity at all?" District 7 Councilman Chris Nevitt asked the Assistant City Attorney during the meeting. "Why should there be 36 plants? Why shouldn't there be zero?

Although the measure passed the committee unanimously, multiple councilmembers feel there is still a lot of work to be done on the issue. At-Large Councilwoman Robin Kniech was worried about compliant caregivers with more than 36 plants and how they would continue to serve patients.

"This all makes sense to me, but I wonder if we can create a box for the folks who have a waiver to grow at a large-scale and aren't tied to a retail store," she said during the meeting.

District 8 Councilman Albus Brooks echoed Kniech's reservations despite voting in favor of the bill.

"I don’t feel like this is done yet. We still have two or three more steps, but I think this is one in the right direction," he said. "We’re going to have keep evolving this regime."

Violation of the proposed amendment would carry up to one year in prison and a $999 fine.
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Thomas Mitchell has written about all things cannabis for Westword since 2014, covering sports, real estate and general news along the way for publications such as the Arizona Republic, Inman and Fox Sports. He's currently the cannabis editor for
Contact: Thomas Mitchell