Marijuana raid in Highlands Ranch: "Harassment tactics" may undermine faith in DEA, says Matt Brown

The Drug Enforcement Administration raid on a home marijuana grow in Highlands Ranch, coming hot on the heels of similar actions at medical marijuana labs in Denver and Colorado Springs, spurred outcry from the likes of attorney Rob Corry, who called for agents involved in the Highlands Ranch matter to be fired, suspended or otherwise disciplined.

Less censorious is Matt Brown, head of Coloradans for Medical Marijuana Regulations, who's arguably the least excitable of the industry's most prominent local advocates. For instance, he praised the Denver City Council's medical marijuana regulations even as many of his peers derided them.

Still, even Brown questions the DEA's recent actions, as well as comments made by local office boss Jeffrey Sweetin -- and he notes with disappointment that the agency doesn't seem interested in sitting down to create a smoother relationship.

Even if Colorado legislators pass a medical marijuana bill of the sort being put forward by Representative Tom Massey, confusion is likely to continue, Brown believes.

"Nothing we do at the state level is going to change anything federally," he points out.

Moreover, he continues, a Justice Department memo from October, which directed federal agents to defer to states that have approved medical marijuana, contains language loopholes.

"It singled out patients and providers 'in clear and unambiguous compliance' with state laws," Brown allows. "And when we read that, as an industry, it stood out as a bright line. So we're not asking the DEA to change anything it's doing in the enforcement of illegal drugs -- and marijuana remains illegal on a federal level" when it's not being used for medical purposes under the laws of select states like Colorado.

There's a problem, though: Brown concedes that "we don't have a clear and unambiguous set of rules to follow, and that can lead to more potential situations like we saw last week, where someone is in partial compliance, but it's messy, because there's not a clear line for them to follow."

As a result, Brown believes the DEA should exercise some restraint.

"Particularly here in Colorado, it's obvious that the state is taking up the issue and trying to talk about it seriously," he says. "And every time there's a DEA raid, whether it's last Friday in HIghlands Ranch or the two laboratories, which provide a much more clear example, it just starts to make people doubt the DEA.

"It just seems on the surface to be very out of step with what the policy's perceived to be. Now, if there's some mitigating factor, like someone doesn't have patient records or other documents to prove compliance, then, by all means, let the DEA investigate. But if it comes across as harassment tactics, that undermines the wider public trust in the DEA.

"All we've been asking is, what is the DEA's agenda? And is it an agenda independent of the federal government in D.C.? Or is there some kind of change of policy that we're not aware of?"

Making matters worse, according to Brown, is the DEA's lack of engagement in the process of developing legislation.

"I certainly don't seeing them as being at the table," he maintains. "We've talked to lobbyists and representatives from a lot of law enforcement agencies, and I'd like nothing more than to sit down and talk with special agent Sweetin, as we've done with people like [Westword profile subject] Tom Gorman. But that doesn't seem to be something they'd like to do, and I don't see that changing."

In the meantime, Brown has advice for medical marijuana growers and dispensary owners -- and it's not exactly new. In fact, he says, "it's the same as it would have been a week ago. First and foremost, you need to make sure you have your patient records. You need them to be organized and on site, so that if someone shows up at your door, you won't be scrambling all over the city to get your records. And then figure out what your local rules are."

That can be tough, Brown acknowledges: "It's my understanding that there are over fifty different medical marijuana regulations for communities statewide, and organizations like ours can't stay on top of every one of them 100 percent of the time. But it's a good opportunity for people in the industry to go to local governments and say, 'What do you expect of us? If you have rules, can you help us understand them? If you're debating rules, could you bring us in, so we can give you our feedback? And if you have no rules, tell us what we need to do in that case.'"

In the meantime, Brown admits that "there's a lot of fear in the industry. To some degree, people in this business have been looking over their shoulder since day one, whether they started a year ago or thirty years ago. And so all of us need to come together to talk about this openly and figure out if we as a state support things like DEA raids, or if we should instead say, 'We have Amendment 20. Now let's figure out how we can make it work.'"

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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