Last week, on March 23, 2015, the Denver City Council approved a measure that limits the number of marijuana plants an unlicensed grow operation can have. The measure’s goal is to rein in the medical marijuana caregiver market, which officials contend has gotten out of hand.
Under previous city law, caregivers could grow up to six plants for five patients each and six plants for their own personal use, or 36 marijuana plants total. However, the law said nothing about sharing cultivation space with other caregivers; and approximately 58 industrial warehouses have been rented out by caregivers banding together.
According to city officials, many of these shared growing facilities had anywhere between 1,000 and 2,000 marijuana plants. The massive amount of marijuana in these unlicensed grow facilities raised concern among city officials.
“It is very unlikely that these numbers of plants support only caregiving or personal, private use of marijuana,” said city spokesperson Dan Rowland to the Durango Herald. Now whether or not you agree with Rowland’s assessment, it seems he has a good reason to be suspicious.
A few days after the city passed the ordinance, the DEA arrested and indicted members of a multimillion-dollar marijuana smuggling ring. Apparently the conspirators posed as medical marijuana caregivers, rented out a large warehouse and smuggled marijuana out of the state.
There are worse things in this world to smuggle than marijuana; however, smuggling rings undermine the legal market that so many activists and entrepreneurs have fought to establish.
Aside from the fear of criminal malfeasance, these large unlicensed grows also present another problem: zoning violations. Because these grow sites are unlicensed, they do not have to undergo the regular safety inspections required for licensed operations. As a result, there have been numerous code violations among these grow sites.
Many Denver caregivers are understandably upset at this move by the Denver City Council and plan to fight it any way they can. According to Denver Westword many caregivers wrote to the council to voice their displeasure, including caregiver Christopher Weatherhogg.
“I would like to state that I do believe that Denver city regulations need to be strengthened so that there is more oversight over any safety or legal concerns,” Weatherhogg explained. “Unfortunately by limiting caregivers to 36 plants that would effectively crush the medicinal market.”
Indeed, maybe there is a middle ground between strict regulation and a loose market. In the case of caregivers, it is definitely time to bring caregivers under the regulatory wing of the state. As it stands statewide, more can be done to add structure to the valued caregiver system. However, caregivers should be included in this process.
In the broader context, the Colorado caregiver issue should serve as a teaching experience for other states formulating marijuana regulations. It is much easier to get it right the first time than having to go back and edit the law later. Hopefully, this lesson will be absorbed and not ignored; otherwise, we could see more smuggling rings attempt to threaten the industry’s legitimacy.