Lately, dispensary owners and marijuana growers have been watching their back.
Over the past few weeks, Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided two marijuana testing facilities, one in Denver and one in Colorado Springs, as well busting a Highland Ranch marijuana grow on Friday that its owner had bragged about on 9News. Yesterday marijuana mouthpiece Rob Corry declared that Colorado DEA has gone rogue from federal medical marijuana guidelines, while DEA spokesman Mike Turner confirmed that there have been a handful of other grow-facility raids along the Front Range over the past month or so.
So -- is the DEA on the medical-marijuana warpath?
To that question, Jeff Sweetin, the special agent in charge of DEA operations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Montana, keeps it plain and simple. "We are not declaring war on dispensaries," he says -- though he adds with a laugh, "If we were declaring war on dispensaries, they would not be hard to find. You can't swing a dead cat around here without hitting thirty of them."
As for people like Corry who are accusing his agency of launching a marijuana crusade, Sweetin says, "I think the people who claim to represent marijuana growers in this state are trying to create this fear, and I think that's sad."
Sweetin makes note of the fact that the DEA hasn't ever shut down a Colorado dispensary, and the agency doesn't plan on doing so unless there are aggravating factors involved -- like violence, ties to drug cartels or distribution to children. Yes, the DEA has conducted raids on several grow facilities, but that's because Sweetin says they were so blatantly violating even state medical-marijuana laws they couldn't be ignored.
Take the Highland Ranch raid last Friday, says Sweetin: "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?" Not only was that residential grow operation just a few hundred feet from an elementary school, says Sweetin, but agents discovered that the owner, Chris Bartkowicz, didn't have nearly enough medical marijuana patients under his care to justify the 150 pot plants they found in his basement.
As for the two marijuana testing labs DEA also raided? By applying for DEA licenses, both operations essentially compelled agents to come in and seize their weed.
"It used to be we paid people cash money for marijuana information," says Sweetin. "We don't have to anymore. We just have to watch the news or go about our daily lives and we come across major grows." He says that since Friday's high-profile raid, concerned citizens have been sending the DEA information about other potential residential marijuana grows.
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Sweetin's stance seems to have softened some since he was quoted in the Denver Post last Friday as saying, "The time is coming when we go into a dispensary, we find out what their profit is, we seize the building and we arrest everybody. They're violating federal law."
The DEA head notes that quote was taken somewhat out of context, but stands by the concept that medical marijuana businesses are still violating federal law. Sweetin is also careful to note that while, in October, the Department of Justice told federal prosecutors to defer to state medical marijuana laws, the memo establishing this approach also noted that dispensaries and associated businesses would still be prosecuted if there were other factors involved, such as activities or marijuana amounts clearly in violation of state marijuana laws.
So how can a well-meaning dispensary owner or commercial pot grower stay on the DEA's good side? For one thing, Sweetin says, they should make sure they are in complete compliance with state law ("I wish them well with that," says Sweetin, since he thinks the state's medical-pot amendment has created huge confusion). Then, he says, "They should know exactly who they are giving marijuana to."
Finally, here's another suggestion: Don't boast about your operation on the nightly news.