Medical marijuana raids: Two recent busts and at least 23 active investigations into what task force commander calls an "illegal industry"

The North Metro Task Force has been busy of late when it comes to marijuana-related arrests, including one that resulted in the discovery of 21 pounds of weed and the arrest of one William Howard Frank, 59.

Frank claimed to be running a medical marijuana operation, just as did Highlands Ranch homeowner Chris Bartkowicz, who was arrested after talking about his home grow on 9News.

The latter case has drawn protests from both medical marijuana advocate Rob Corry and Congressman Jared Polis, both of whom want the Drug Enforcement Administration to back off. But North Metro Task Force Commander Jerry Peters sees such busts as necessary and wholly justifiable, in part because they're attacking an "illegal industry," not state-sanctioned activities.

As examples, Peters notes two recent cases in Broomfield:

On February 13, the Broomfield Police Department executed a warrant at a house on the 2500 block of West 133rd Circle. There, they discovered what the resident described as a medical marijuana grow operation featuring 152 plants, as well as more than 26 grams of dried marijuana. Arrest warrants have been filed, but no one's been taken into custody on the case yet.

The next week, NMTF detectives were alerted by authorities in California about packages of marijuana being shipped to a residence on the 1300 block of Daphne Street in Broomfield. Officers showed up there on February 23 to discover fourteen pounds of marijuana that came from Cali, as well as another seven pounds Frank apparently grew at that location. Frank told the cops he ran an Internet dispensary and had a license to grow and use medical marijuana. Nonetheless, he was arrested for possession with intent to distribute and possession of a weapon by a prior offender.

Plenty of other folks may be facing similar charges soon. "We currently have 23 active investigations going on when it comes to marijuana grows throughout Adams County," Peters says.

Peters emphasizes that the task force isn't ignoring Amendment 20, which legalized medical marijuana usage in Colorado. "People absolutely have a right to grow marijuana for medical purposes in this state," he says. "But the majority of the people we're seeing are considerably outside the intent of the amendment."

When people like Frank and the individuals involved in the West 133rd Circle bust insist that they are growing medical marijuana, they're not ignored, Peters says -- and such assertions are now commonplace.

"People almost always claim caregiver status or patient status, but they're over their allotted limits," he says. "Because we're trying to figure everything out, these cases are taking a considerable amount of time to investigate. It's not as simple as here's a guy who's in possession of marijuana, and he's growing marijuana, and therefore he should be arrested immediately. Since it's an affirmative defense, we're trying to do the right thing and find out if they're legitimate. And we have found legitimate patients who aren't trying to put one over on anybody. But the vast majority of people are just trying to make a quick million."

Of course, Amendment 20 leaves a lot of room for interpretation -- and Peters tends to view it in narrow terms.

"There's nothing in the amendment that recognizes a dispensary as a bona fide caregiver," he says. "That's an interpretation people have, but there isn't. So there's a lot of confusion, and a lot of things that are going on because people don't know where the line falls. But there's certainly no allowance for an Internet dispensary -- and Broomfield has a moratorium on dispensaries right now. You can't run one there."

From a statewide perspective, he continues, "we're not at a point where we're taking dispensaries down. But we can find out if people are legitimately providing for patients -- caregiving within the allotted framework of the constitutional amendment, which says you can grow six plants or possess two ounces per patient. And that's not what Mr. Frank did. He went to California and shipped himself all this grade-A marijuana through the U.S. mail. That's not legitimate. And then he's got an additional seven pounds of marijuana he's grown himself."

Cases like this one have convinced Peters that medical marijuana is mainly intended to "legitimize an illegal industry -- and it's created a clientele base of people they can't even catch up with. Just look at my numbers from grow operations we have in the state. I'm double the plants we've confiscated in the month of January -- from, like, 2,000 or 3,000 plants last year at this time to 6,000 plants confiscated this year. And those are only the ones we're confiscating. We're leaving most of them in place -- and it's still not enough to satisfy the demand.

"Our concern is, you've got this clientele based on this illegal industry, and it's falling in on itself -- forcing people to go out of state, illegally ship marijuana across state lines, and cartels are getting involved, funneling marijuana from Mexico. I know people don't want to believe that, but this is like any capitalist venture. You've got to look at supply and demand."

The task force's approach, conceived after consultation with various police departments and district attorney's offices in Adams County, doesn't dismiss the amendment, Peters stresses.

"The voters spoke, and people who are legitimately operating within the amendment aren't the people we're looking at. We're not targeting anybody. But the ones that come up in the course of investigation that are clearly outside the amendment, we have to look at. Ones that have one or two patients and 200 plants, when they should be allowed twelve: That's clearly an abuse of the system.

"Most of the interviews we're conducting with growers now, they're talking about selling their overages to dispensaries to recoup their costs, and that's not what the voters voted on. That's pure and simple capitalism. There's no compassion for patients there. So that's what I'm focused on -- going after people who are abusing the system. And I think people agree with that. If people really need medical marijuana, fine. But if people are trying to steal it, rob it, sell it to kids by schools, they're abusing the rules and we should at least investigate it."

Some observers have argued that legalizing marijuana for adults would actually improve the current situation, by removing the need for interpretation of Amendment 20. Peters disagrees.

"We're already over-medicating our children with prescription drugs -- and I don't disagree with people who compare marijuana to prescription drugs and alcohol, and who say, 'Aren't we already doing harm?' Yes, we are. But I think simply legalizing marijuana in the state sends the wrong message to kids as they grow up. We're already having a difficult time with dropout rates, teen pregnancies, issues of kids staying in school, and any kind of legalization movement would push us back further on those issues.

"We did an informal survey in the City of Thornton when I was working the street as a commander there, and we found there's an increase in child maltreatment when people have access to marijuana," he continues. "You've got this decreased attention level to child-rearing, where people leave them unattended. And there are indications of a hangover effect. People talk about how it makes them mellow and chills them out, but later, they become grumpy and grouchy. We've done interviews with people who've slapped their kids because they irritated them, and afterward, they'd say, 'I need the marijuana to chill me out.' So it's a vicious circle. They're jonesing."

As these comments imply, Peters feels the task force is doing the right thing by going after the likes of Frank. One reason there are 23 investigations in motion is because, he says, "we haven't been able to get to all of them yet. We're average one to two marijuana grow operations that we have to investigate every week. There are just so many of them."

And more are popping up all the time.

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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