Medical marijuana advocate Brian Vicente, organizer of DEA protest: Obama needs to "call off the dogs"

Today, President Barack Obama is coming to Denver to raise funds for Senator Michael Bennet -- a display of favoritism in the primary that frustrates longtime Obama fan Polly Baca.

But his appearance is welcomed by Sensible Colorado's Brian Vicente and other medical marijuana advocates, who've been looking for a way to express their displeasure at the federal prosecution of Highland Ranch's Chris Bartkowicz, a medical marijuana grower whose home was raided by the Drug Enforcement Administration last Friday after he appeared in a 9News story.

Vicente will join with supporters at noon at the corner of Colfax and Clarkson, near the Fillmore Auditorium, where Obama will be speaking. Their message is simple. "We feel the DEA hasn't gotten the memo from President Obama," he says. "We want to bring it to his attention that they are acting in a rogue manner -- and hopefully, he will tell them to call off the dogs and hold them accountable."

The Bartkowicz bust isn't the only example of aggressive DEA action regarding medical marijuana of late. Agents have also swooped in on laboratories in Denver and Colorado Springs that had applied for licenses.

But the Highlands Ranch incident is the focus of Vicente's frustration -- and he doesn't buy defenses offered by the likes of DEA special agent Jeffrey Sweetin, who justified the raid in a recent Westword interview by saying, "When you turn on 9News, and you have a guy talking about how much pot he grows, how are you not going to go after that guy?"

To that, Vicente says, "At the most fundamental level, it's just a blatant and ridiculous waste of resources to go after an individual who was absolutely growing for medical purposes. He went on the news to say, 'I'm growing medically,' and I don't think it's plausible in any way, shape or form that he was growing marijuana recreationally."

Perhaps not, but U.S. Attorney David Gaouette told Westword yesterday that Bartkowicz had far more marijuana plants than Amendment 20 allows for the number of patients for whom he served as caregiver -- and an October memo for Deputy Attorney General David Ogden specifically stated that prosecution was advisable in instances when individuals weren't in "clear and unambiguous compliance" with state laws.

Vicente's response?

"To get more at the root of the U.S. Attorney's argument, they claim [Bartkowicz] is in violation of state law, but the only place to litigate that is in state court. Federal courts are completely unequipped to determine if the person is in compliance with the state marijuana law. So we're calling on the feds to drop the charges and allow the state courts to take on the case, so he can actually defend himself against these claims.

"In federal court, you can't say the words 'medical marijuana,' so his defense is gutted, and the U.S. Attorney is absolutely aware of that. There's no question that he was growing medically, but he can't make that argument in federal court.

"That's why this is so disturbing. It's wanton prosecution. They're trying to put him in jail for forty years for a medical marijuana grow. And they're doing it in violation of what the voters of this state want, and in violation of what President Obama has said he wants."

That's not the way Gaouette sees it. About marijuana in general, he says, "Congress, as well as the state of Colorado, has determined that marijuana is a dangerous drug. It's a controlled substance, a schedule one controlled substance, and in the federal system, and in the state system, possession of a controlled substance is prohibited and it's a criminal act.

"As we know, Amendment 20 has amended the Colorado state constitution to carve out exemptions and affirmative defenses for the general proposition or law that prohibits the use of marijuana," Gaouette continued. "But we don't need to wait for the state legislature to interpret the amendment. The guidance we have from the deputy attorney general is sufficient for us to do our job, which is to enforce the federal law."

These words seem particularly out of touch to Vicente.

"I think the U.S. Attorney needs to get out of the dark ages," he says. "His comments are representative of decades past, when today, marijuana has been recognized by fifteen states as having medical value. The DEA and the U.S. Attorney have a tremendous amount of discretion, and they should use that discretion instead of wasting their time and our precious tax dollars prosecuting a small scale medical marijuana grower" -- someone Vicente refers to as having turned into "a martyr for this cause."

If that's the case, why is the heat still on? Vicente shares his theory:

"I think the U.S. Attorney and the DEA view marijuana laws as a continuing employment act. It gives them something to do, and they're afraid that if they were to recognize the will of the voters, they'd be out of work. So I question the motivation for prosecuting these kinds of individuals. I think it's driven by their own need for job security."

Of course, Vicente and his fellow protesters won't be able to make such arguments directly to Obama. The president isn't slated to arrive at the Fillmore much before the event's 3 p.m. start time, and the medical marijuana rally is expected to end around 1 p.m., in order to encourage patients and providers to make their feelings known during their lunch hour.

However, Vicente points out, "the president's staff will be arriving hours in advance, and people will start lining up around noon. There will be luminaries and legislators there early as well, so we want to make sure all those in attendance can see this protest and pass this message along. And we'll encourage protesters who have time to stick around all afternoon."

The troops would clearly like their complaints to be heard across the street, the state and the country.

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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