Medical marijuana persecution or improper practice of law?: The strange case of Kurt Riggin

The Colorado Supreme Court has played host to some odd hearings over its history -- but few have been more unusual than the May 14 proceeding involving Kurt Riggin.

Riggin, who identifies himself as a tribal chief and judge of the Kikiallus nation, based in Washington state, was present to defend himself against charges that he'd violated a previous ruling against him by acting as an attorney in Colorado.

He insists that he served as more of a patient advocate, not a lawyer, in an incident involving a medical marijuana user in Park County who said local authorities were harassing him. But next month, he'll face felony charges of attempting to influence a public servant and criminal impersonation in Park County court.

Supreme Court Regulation Counsel John Gleason adds that the Supreme Court keeps a roster of people who would present a risk to the public if they practiced law in Colorado -- "and Mr. Riggin is on that list."

Riggin says he's a member of the Federal Bar Assocation -- something the Virginia-based organization confirms -- who's practiced law as either an attorney or a judge for a slew of Native American tribes, including the Kikiallus. But because he's not a member of the Colorado Bar Association, he's not authorized to practice law in the state.

That doesn't make a great deal of sense to Riggin. "My tribe was recognized by the federal government as a sovereign nation in 1855 -- and where was Colorado in 1855? You guys were in Kansas," he says.

This logic didn't connect with Colorado authorities, who charged him with the unauthorized practice of law a few years back after he filed a complaint in Custer County on behalf of a medical marijuana patient like himself. "I had a prescription from a doctor in Washington before any state had a medical marijuana law," says Riggin,

His most vivid memory of the subsequent hearing, which he says took place in 2007, involved his request to use medical marijuana in the Supreme Court building. "I got sick. I started throwing up, because I have chronic nausea. So I asked the judge where I could medicate," he says. In the end, "the judge let me smoke a joint in the bathroom."

The ruling against him came down in January 2008; click here to read the judgment, which included a $1,000 fine. But Riggin wasn't around to hear it.

"I was going through cancer treatments at the time and couldn't make it to my hearing -- so they ruled against me in my absence," he notes. "And there's not really any way for them to get the money out of me. I'm disabled, which makes me judgment-proof. So they've never really tried to collect."

Maybe not, but Riggin remained on the Supreme Court's radar -- and he popped up again last October, when he visited Park County in the company of his friend Timothy Tipton, a local medical marijuana advocate who presented Westword with an award for our MMJ coverage at the Caregivers' Cup this past weekend.

According to Riggin, Tipton had told him that a medical marijuana patient suffering from pancreatic cancer and post traumatic stress disorder was being taken advantage of by representatives of the Park County Sheriff's Office. "They kept going by and telling him, 'Since you have medical marijuana, we have the right to search your house anytime we want,'" he says. "They would search and toss things around and spotlight his home at night and cause him a lot of anxiety -- and you can imagine how bad that is for someone with PTSD. So Tim and I went over to the office to file an informal administrative complaint against this officer, so he would leave the patient alone."

The key word in this last sentence is "informal." Tipton, who calls what's happened to Riggin "a grievous injustice," stresses that Riggin never represented himself as the patient's attorney. (In fact, Riggin says he didn't even know the man's name.) Instead, Riggin was merely acting as a patient advocate just like Tipton. But before long, Riggin had been charged with attempting to influence a public servant and criminal impersonation because he's not licensed to practice law in Colorado.

Park County Sheriff Fred Wegener says he can't comment on the case, because it's ongoing. Riggin was scheduled for arraignment in Park County court yesterday, May 24, but the attorney representing him filed for a thirty-day continuance. The new arraignment date is June 28.

Like Wegener, attorney Kim Ikeler declined to talk about the May 14 Supreme Court hearing, held before presiding disciplinary judge William Lucero, in which he represented Colorado. But both Riggin and Tipton say Ikeler claimed the appearance pertained to the original 2007 ruling and was unrelated to the incidents in Park County -- an assertion neither of them buys.

As for Gleason, he says he can't discuss the specifics of Riggin's case, either, since Lucero has yet to make his ruling -- and there's no specific time frame for him to do so. But he agrees to discuss the general approach to enforcement taken by his office.

"If there's something preceding against anyone involved in the unauthorized practice of law, it's because we believe there's a risk to the public," he says. "We frequently participate with local law enforcement or the attorney general's office in not only enjoining them from the practice of law, but also joining with law enforcement in prosecuting people who participate in the unlawful practice of law."

As for Riggin's claims about authorization to practice law from assorted tribes, Gleason says, "we've had individuals other than Mr. Riggin from across the U.S. make those kinds of assertions. My equivalents in other states have addressed issues involving folks who've alleged that they're licensed in some obscure way. But none of that applies to the practice of law in Colorado.

"For the public's protection," he goes on, "we have a detailed list of individuals who are under orders from the Supreme Court enjoining them from practicing law on our website, We're concerned about all of those folks potentially harming the public, and I would encourage people who are considering hiring someone they don't know to be licensed to make sure they're not on the list."

As is, for example, Riggin.

In response, Riggin says he's merely trying to stand up for medical marijuana patients and others who are being mistreated by the authorities. "All these cases are based on sour grapes by public servants who don't like getting their noses slapped -- who don't like getting administrative complaints against them when they do something criminal," he maintains. "And when they say you can't practice law in this state and we're going to fine you, that's refusing to recognize tribal sovereignty. And I argue that tribes and their governments are sovereign."

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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