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Could tighter regulations on home grow restrictions prevent federal crackdown?



Homegrowers can't catch a break.
  • Homegrowers can't catch a break.

As previously covered in CannaBiz, the new administration moving into Washington next month represents a big question mark for Colorado's legal marijuana industry. President-elect Trump's pick for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, has made clear his disdain for letting states tax and regulate a Schedule I narcotic, as has been the Department of Justice's policy under the Obama administration, but whether a full-blown crackdown is on the way remains to be seen.

In this uncertain climate, state officials are taking steps to safeguard the billion- dollar industry that's become a major economic generator.

On that subject, Denver 9News' Kyle Clark interviewed Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman — a Republican who supported Trump while her husband, U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, took a far more reluctant position. She emphasized the legitimacy of Colorado's system and urged federal agencies to tread lightly.

"You cannot paint one brush stroke on this and say, 'This is what marijuana is,'" she told Clark. "We have done a lot to regulate the industry. I think we have learned a lot. Every year the Legislature tweaks the statutes and agencies adjust regulations, so we have, I think, the best system of any state in the country in terms of marijuana regulation."

Gov. John Hickenlooper has proposed some new measures for even tighter regulation, in hopes it may deter extreme federal action. Last week, the Cannabist reported that the governor intends to push a ban on group recreational home grows and new registration requirements for medical marijuana home growers. A spokeswoman from that office didn't return a request for more details by press time.

Though medically they've been legal in Colorado for nearly two decades now, residential grows have been highly scrutinized over the past year, with local jurisdictions passing their own laws to further limit what adults, patients and caregivers can grow themselves. State law makes room for up to 99 plants, a number some high-need patients rely on, but Colorado Springs, for example, passed an ordinance over the summer limiting private residences to 12 plants tops, regardless of doctors' recommendations. The justification, as CannaBiz reported at the time, was to prevent non-patients from taking advantage of this state's medical marijuana laws to grow large quantities of cannabis for distribution out-of-state (a federal infraction).

Raids all along the Front Range have yielded few convictions so far — an outcome the Drug Enforcement Agency blames, in part, on public awareness. In its 2016 Drug Threat Assessment report, the agency argues, "Varying state laws, as well as an abundance of media attention surrounding claims of possible medical benefits, has made enforcement and prosecution of marijuana related offenses more difficult, especially in states that have approved marijuana laws."

Public opinion is comfortably on the side of not putting people in jail for a joint, but as long as marijuana is the worst kind of drug in the eyes of the federal government and most states don't allow for its commercial sale, there'll be a niche for the criminal element to fill. Stymieing that criminal element may well be a public safety goal, especially if DEA's claim that organized trafficking operations have wrought violence and committed other crimes is true. But whether stricter state law could successfully stamp out enterprises supplying out-of-state markets and, crucially, whether that would somehow earn the legal industry reprieve from potential federal crackdown are both speculative for now.

Medical marijuana advocates worry that real patients will suffer under stricter regulations — not criminals who, by definition, don't care what the law says.

"This is not at all what people voted for," says patient rights lobbyist Jason Warf about the governor's proposals to further restrict home grows. "I am taking calls almost daily from owners, patients, and caregivers who want to get rid of all regulation and tax money to the state. They feel attacked, and rightly so."

Some local caregivers are still intending to file a lawsuit taking aim at Colorado Springs' home-grow ordinance. If successful, it could, their attorneys believe, have consequences for municipal plant limits statewide and even the state law that established the 99-plant limit. (The state constitutional amendment that legalized medical marijuana provides for private growing and contains verbiage granting patients access to whatever quantity of marijuana is "medically necessary.")

"It is getting to be insane," Warf says about all the regulations that now make up Colorado's medical marijuana system. "Yes, maybe it is time to consider stripping all regulation back to the basic amendments."

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