Meet Tom Gorman, the man behind law enforcement's medical marijuana bill

The Denver Post has labeled Tom Gorman, director of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, a "drug-war soldier" who didn't get the memo that the battle was over.

Medical marijuana advocates are calling him the leader of a "war on patients," since behind the scenes he's helping to spearhead statewide legislation, known as the law-enforcement bill, that may gut the state's booming dispensary industry.

So who is this foreboding Gorman fellow, the former chief of California's narcotics operations who now looms large over this state's heady medical marijuana scene? He's a very friendly 66-year-old with an extremely bad-ass past.

"You can say I was a troubled youth," says Gorman, sitting in a downtown eatery. A former New Mexico gang member, he joined the Air Force ROTC during the Vietnam War, only to get kicked out for not having the right attitude.

His next job suited him better: undercover officer for the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, an assignment he started in northern California in 1968. In other words, he was dropped into the heart of the hippie revolution. "You had the Black Panthers, you had the Hell's Angels, you had Haight-Ashbury, you had the protest movement," he says. "It was right in the middle of it all."

But he says he saw a very different side of the fabled counterculture movement. Drug rings and organized crime. Babies starved for attention and kids covered in cigarette burns. "It was a very self-absorbed subculture that I saw," he says. "Law enforcement gets to see what nobody else sees."

That wasn't always easy -- nor was the fact that for his efforts, he says he had a $25,000 bounty placed on his head. One time in a gun battle, he was shot in the chest. Another time, a suspect stabbed a four-inch hunting knife into his leg.

He survived and worked his way up the career ladder, becoming director of statewide narcotics operations in the late 1980s -- meaning he had a front-lines position in the country's war against the Colombian cocaine cartels. He retired in 1997, but the born-again Christian wasn't done with police work.

"I'm a big believer in what we do in law enforcement," he says. "When you put a violent person in jail, you are preventing someone, somewhere from becoming a victim, although he or she will never know it."

In short, he explains, "I will do this until the day I die."

That's why he jumped at the chance to run the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, part of the National Drug Control Policy office that helps coordinate local drug task forces and other large-scale narcotics efforts in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Utah. He came in just in time to tangle with the next drug epidemic: the spread of meth labs across the region.

Now he's set his sights on a new challenge -- stopping the rampant expansion of the medical-marijuana scene, which he sees as a back-door attempt to legalize weed. That's why he, along with Colorado Attorney General John Suthers have been leading efforts to develop the law-enforcement medical-marijuana bill, which, among other things, would limit each caregiver to a maximum of five patients. The bill may be introduced in the state house next week, and Gorman also recently sent a letter to state lawmakers noting that regulations legitimizing dispensaries would violate federal law.

"I don't think it's too late," he says about curtailing the dispensary scene, "but we have to move quickly."

Still, Gorman's adamant that he's not some closed-minded prohibitionist. He concedes that there are many patients and caregivers benefiting from Amendment 20, the state's medical-marijuana law -- people who "you can't help but have compassion for." And he'd like to see marijuana's federal status downgraded to a Schedule II narcotic. "If we could do some more research and regulate it like other Schedule II drugs, this would all go away," he says.

But he argues that voters never envisioned a for-profit medical-marijuana industry when they passed Amendment 20 a decade ago. If Coloradans really want to really legalize pot, he says they need to pass another amendment doing so -- though in his estimation, that would be a bad move.

"Increasing any kind of drug use is not a good thing," he says. "If you legalize a substance, what you have is increased use. Any time you have increased use, including with marijuana, you are going to have increased accidents, treatments and other problems." He believes the cost of all these new social problems will outweigh any tax revenue or job creation associated with dispensaries and other marijuana businesses.

To prove his point, he cites "our legal drug," alcohol, which, if Gorman had his way, would be prohibited, too. "We lose 17,000 people a year on highways every year due to drunk-driving deaths," he says. "How the heck do we tolerate that?"

Lately, Gorman's faced criticisms for making arguments like this to legislators, since federal employees are prohibited from lobbying. He explains that since he's a contractor working for the government those laws don't apply to him -- but he's also not registered as a lobbyist.

"When I was down at the state capitol using my expertise to talk about methamphetamine and drug endangered children, nobody said a word," he argues.

Gorman will probably face more attacks from his opponents before everything is said and done. And since medical marijuana activists also vehemently opposed and eventually sank a much more lenient marijuana bill suggested by Senator Chris Romer, Gorman doesn't see much opportunity for both sides to make nice.

"I will tell you that there's sentiment out there that no matter what you do, the [marijuana advocates] are not going to be satisfied," says Gorman. "Is there a compromise position? If they are looking for maximum profits, probably not."

In other words, the battle lines have been drawn -- and Gorman's ready for a fight.

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner

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