At 8:30 a.m. this morning, a preliminary hearing is scheduled in the case of medical marijuana caregiver Joseph Lightfoot, who's charged with child abuse simply for growing pot in his home.
Riah McBee can identify with Lightfoot's situation. Last year, he faced similar accusations, and had to fight for months to get his kids back.
McBee is a prominent medical-marijuana advocate as the co-creator and production manager of Louisville, Colorado-based Cannabis Health News Magazine -- and he's in the midst of launching a new site, MMJFact.com, which will provide information to members of the medical marijuana community whose children are being targeted by government agencies. Much of the material McBee plans to provide will be drawn from his personal experience.
McBee's nightmare began in April 2009. According to him, his home grow had come to the attention of social services in Boulder County. Afraid that his school-age children would be seized, he and his wife signed over custody of the kids to their grandfather. But during a period when McBee and his wife were caring for their offspring, law enforcement set up what he describes as "a sting" intended to prove that the children were living in an unsafe environment.
The kids weren't present during the law-enforcement sweep, McBee says. Moreover, his grow was set up to isolate it from the children -- he advises home cultivators to use "lock and key" procedures -- and to properly ventilate the building to prevent health hazards for any occupants, no matter their age. Nonetheless, he notes, "cops seized our property and social services took our children away from us, which is the worst thing you can do to a parent."
This action triggered a legal fight that ended positively for McBee and his family. "Upon doing an investigation, social services determined that the home was not a dangerous environment -- not unless you subscribe to law-enforcement rhetoric that anybody who has a grow operation is likely to have their home robbed or get shot. But rarely do we hear about home invasions or burglaries. That's just another tactic in their arsenal."
After six weeks of wrangling, McBee says, social services agreed to return the children to him -- and although the process dragged out for another two weeks after that, the agency eventually made good on this action. In addition, he reveals, "I wound up getting a court order and had a few different judges throughout my proceedings all acknowledge my legal right to possess and consume cannabis, making no differentiation between cultivation of and finished cannabis."
Despite his personal happy ending, however, McBee is convinced that assorted government types who disapprove of medical marijuana are continuing to use child-abuse accusations as a way of undermining the rights of caregivers and patients. Indeed, he sees the felony allegations against Lightfoot and partner Amber Wildenstein as a case in point.
"This is a rather unique situation to the medical marijuana industry," he notes. "All other drug cases are pretty cut and dried, with police and social services being able to take children out of the home. But the dynamic of family and cannabis is changing -- and when I went through it, there were no resources, nobody to share information with me, to discuss how certain statutes were being misrepresented and misapplied under the law."
Granted, the rules about home grows remain vague -- and McBee believes the lack of specificity is purposeful.
"This may sound pessimistic, but I assume the regulations are undefined so they can manipulate them," he maintains. "We need to have policies and procedures in place, but we don't." That's another reason why "people need to better understand the parameters of how they conduct their business or grow operations."
Otherwise, they're at risk -- and so are their kids.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.