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Colorado medical marijuana businesses brace for federal crackdown


Ever since the Great Green Rush of 2009, which saw an unprecedented surge of medical marijuana ganjapreneurialism in Colorado, dispensary owners and commercial cannabis growers have only had to contend with state and local officials to remain in business. But now there is a far more daunting opponent on the horizon—the federal government.

While Drug Enforcement Administration raids of MMJ businesses have made headlines in Colorado from time to time, the state hasn’t seen the sort of militaristic crackdown that’s been more common in California. But, with letters of warning having been issued to 23 dispensaries across the state operating within 1,000 feet of schools, it’s on the way.

“Those 23 are just our first wave,” U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesman Jeff Dorschner is quoted as saying in the Daily Camera. “There are many more, and after we complete the first wave, there will be a second wave and then possibly a third and a fourth.”

It’s unlikely that many medical marijuana business owners are surprised at the threat. It’s well-known that even though medical marijuana is sanctioned by the state constitution—and heavily regulated by state and local ordinances—any use, distribution or possession of pot is just as illegal under federal laws as ever. Defendants in federal drug cases are rarely (if ever) allowed to invoke a medical defense when fighting marijuana cultivation and distribution charges, meaning the prospect of a lengthy prison sentence and the loss of personal property to federal asset seizure laws is a real possibility no matter how closely one hews to the state rules.

Dispensaries near schools likely represent the lowest-hanging fruit for federal agents. Sentencing enhancements for distributing or manufacturing controlled substances within 1,000 feet of schools call for twice the maximum penalty and fine upon conviction. The letter from the U.S. Attorney gives the 23 business- and property owners 45 days to move or face the music. Some dispensary owners are taking the threat seriously; the Camera reports that the Headquarters Emporium and Dispensary in Lyons is moving to a new location farther from Lyons Elementary School.

But even those that manage to get out of the crosshairs have no guarantee that they’ll be left alone. In fact, if California is any example, they can simply expect further harassment in the months and years to come. DEA raids have been a part of the cannabis culture in California since it became the first state to allow for the medical use of marijuana in 1996, capped most recently by a crackdown that began with letters of warning, just as in Colorado. Such raids don’t always result in arrests. One trend that has emerged over the years is that federal agents will simply loot medical marijuana businesses, confiscating or destroying marijuana, and seizing the cash and other assets. That leaves the owners at the bottom of a steep financial hill if they want to start over, and their patients without a legitimate source of medicine.

Even without interference from the feds, dispensary owners in Colorado have their hands full on the local level. One of the more onerous aspects of a state law adopted to regulate the industry in 2010 is a provision that allows local municipalities to ban the businesses entirely. That happened recently in Fort Collins, where citizens petitioned a measure onto November’s ballot to close down that city’s 20-some dispensaries, which had already navigated a complex framework of compliance put into place by the City Council. The measure passed and the businesses have until Feb. 14 to close shop, although there may be a legal challenge in the works. Forty-four cities and 30 counties in Colorado have banned such businesses, either through vote or ordinance.

Still, there are more than 700 dispensaries in Colorado and more than 30 in Boulder alone. Erie, Superior and Longmont have all prohibited such businesses.