Illegal Pot Gardens and the Status of Legal Medical Marijuana in Colorado

The Denver Post reports that federal drug agents recently seized more than 8,000 plants, three miles of irrigation pipe, and 150 pounds of dried marijuana - and not from the Texas border, but from federal land in southern Utah. The raid took the agents deep into the Dixie National Forest to the illegal farm nestled on the top of a canyon. As a result, five suspects were arrested; they ranged in age from 19 to 31, and all were illegal immigrants.

This was the thirteenth raid of an illegal grow operation in southern Utah in 2010, said Lt. Dave Moss of the Washington County Task Force. He added that task force attention had been diverted for three weeks leading up to the raid, putting it behind in everything else. Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman says that spotting marijuana gardens is not difficult; last year, the department was able to eradicate only 25 percent of the illegal ones it saw.

Marijuana Plants on Federal Property

While advocates of legalization say the legitimate medical marijuana industry has weakened the black market, the number of pot plants destroyed on U.S. Forest Service lands has boomed from about 700,000 plants in 2004 to more than 3 million in 2008. Similarly, the number of overall seizures grew from 3.2 million in 2004 to 10.4 million in 2009. In California, agents eradicated 7.5 million plants in 2009 and officials say they are on target to surpass that number this year. There are an estimated 16.7 million regular pot users in the United States.

Drug Enforcement Agent (DEA) special agent Jeff Sweetin worries Colorado's medical marijuana law has created an impression that marijuana is legal for all consumers in the state, as well as encouraging organized crime to get a piece of legal consumption. From 2004 to 2009, annual plant eradications exploded from approximately 6,000 to almost 30,000. So far in 2010, agents have raided two large illegal grow-ops on public lands.

Lt. Dave Moss says that regardless of where a person stands on the marijuana issue, the concern here is damage to public lands and the threat to public safety. This year, agents in California have shot and killed five people in illegal marijuana farms after suspects allegedly pointed weapons at agents.

Sheriff Allman says growers also pollute, leaving behind piles of trash, spilling diesel fuel into streams and allow pesticide and fertilizer runoff into watersheds. Illegal growers cut down trees, speeding erosion, and kill animals that may try to feed on their harvest.

Even those growing marijuana for medical use may run afoul of the law if they do not heed plant limit or marijuana distribution laws.

Regulation of Medical Marijuana in Colorado

Legal in the state of Colorado since 2000, a new state law grants local governments more authority to regulate medical marijuana. More than 40 jurisdictions considered local rules on marijuana dispensaries and commercial pot-growing operations, and new tax rates for medical pot. Statewide, marijuana dispensaries are now required to grow 70 percent of the pot they sell and engage in seed-to-sale tracking to prevent eventual sale in the black market.

Proponents of marijuana shops say they offer a good tax revenue source for cities. Opponents counter that voter unease over pot shops advertising free joints to new patients outweighs any monetary benefit.

Local bans do not make marijuana illegal but they do outlaw dispensaries and marijuana growing businesses; that is, local patients would need to cultivate their own or travel to a city that allows marijuana dispensaries in order to purchase medical marijuana.

In a close vote, the proposed ban of dispensaries in unincorporated El Paso County failed. Among the other counties that voted to allow dispensaries were Alamosa, Costilla, Eagle and Park. Douglas County and the city of Aurora voted to ban dispensaries. In other locations, such as Vail, city councils or commissions have bypassed the public vote, and taken action to ban dispensaries.

Patients must have a state-issued medical marijuana card and must also either grow the marijuana legally or obtain it from a legal dispensary. Even patients with cards can be arrested for growing illegal marijuana or purchasing marijuana illegally. Those who have questions about medical marijuana or who have been charged with a marijuana offense should promptly contact an experienced criminal defense attorney to discuss the matter.