Summit County Sheriff’s Office wastes its resources on medical pot busts
summit daily news
Summit County, Colorado
SUMMIT COUNTY – Sheriff’s deputies recently searched a Summit County home where nearly 200 marijuana plants are under cultivation, but the investigation and tax dollars were wasted because the grow operation was legal.
The medical marijuana caregiver has medical records and state-issued registry cards for about 400 people, allowing him to grow up to 2,400 plants.
“The problem with caregivers is the state doesn’t tell us who is a caregiver and who is not,” Summit County Sheriff John Minor said.
More than 60 man-hours totaling about $3,000 were put into the investigation, which began after someone turned in a misplaced camera containing images of the operation, he said.
And it wasn’t the first time.
In the past six months, seven of 10 search warrants served at local marijuana growing operations were for people following the law, said Derek Woodman, undersheriff and Summit County Drug Task Force director.
The caregiver in the recent failed bust, who requested anonymity for security reasons, said officers with guns approached his home the evening of Oct. 16. They “pulled us outside” for their protection, he said.
“Once the police have a warrant, they have a right to take the place apart,” he said.
But the caregiver showed them the patients’ medical files and cards, and the seven officers were gone an hour later. The plants were left unharmed and the house wasn’t dismantled.
Minor said a “low-key search warrant” was issued because of the frequency of legal growers.
“We go there, check to make sure the paperwork’s in order and leave,” he said.
Woodman said that while law enforcement elsewhere in the state has taken less tolerant approaches, local deputies aim to avoid wasting time on grow operations compliant with state law.
“If you’re legal, you’re legal,” he said.
The caregiver said that if he had it to do over, he would’ve just gone down to the sheriff’s office and explained his operation when it began a month and a half ago.
Minor said some have come forward but that others “have that old mindset that they’re fearful.”
Not all the caregivers are in full compliance; Woodman said some legal growers have been busted for selling marijuana to undercover officers without registration.
Meanwhile there’s no way for them to confirm a caregiver’s authenticity without serving warrants. The state doesn’t track the caregivers, who are named in the patients’ documents.
Once law enforcement officers procure a caregiver’s patient information, confirmation is made through records available at the Colorado Department of Health in Denver, which is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.
And short staffing for the marijuana registry further stalls efforts, Woodman said.
In Colorado it takes a physician’s referral to apply for a card through the registry, but the patient may begin using the drug immediately.
In one instance, sheriff’s deputies responded to a call regarding a man growing a few plants (patients may grow up to six, with half flowering at a time). The man hadn’t received final approval but had submitted an application.
The plants were taken to the sheriff’s office where they were watered and kept alive until the man’s status was confirmed.
“This is kind of embarrassing, but it’s a fact of life,” Minor said. “We didn’t want to get sued.”
He said marijuana plants have been valued as much as $5,000 each in civil court, so the plants were preserved to prevent a potential lawsuit.
Minor said the strange situation had his department probably violating federal law.
“So that’s the mess that we’re in, and we need some clear guidance,” he said.
He said that while he’s “not a guy who believes in a lot of regulations,” the recent issues with medical marijuana could certainly use them.
While law enforcers grapple with the lack of regulations for caregivers, municipal governments are taxed with developing rules for medical marijuana dispensary businesses.
Local leaders decide whether to regulate the dispensaries like pharmacies, liquor stores or even adult cabarets – as suggested by a Denver councilman in the Denver Post.
Breckenridge dispensary regulations became active earlier this month. They specify location, signage, hours and security measures – including surveillance cameras and permanent, locking safes.
Other communities have banned marijuana dispensaries, and some have allowed them to flourish similar to most businesses.
While some state legislators want to pass regulations in the 2010 session, it appears unlikely anything will happen.
State Rep. Christine Scanlan of Summit County said the state has no money to support the “regulatory framework” and other components to drafting such a bill.
She said Minor’s concerns with identifying legal grow operations make sense.
“I understand his frustration with that, and I think there needs to be clarity,” she said. “But drafting a new set of regulations is going to be tough in this economic climate.”
Minor isn’t very hopeful, either.
“I don’t even know if (the legislature) will touch this in 2010 simply because it’s an election year, and politics has a strange way” of affecting such matters, he said.
Medical marijuana has proliferated in Colorado since President Obama’s administration announced it wouldn’t go after people in compliance with state laws. The local caregiver in the recent incident said he decided to start growing because of that announcement and the Colorado Board of Health’s decision not to limit caregivers’ patient numbers.
Mark Salley, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, said his office receives an average of 400 applications for marijuana licenses per day. As of July 31, Colorado had 11,094 registered medical marijuana patients, with 149 in Summit County.
Salley said that while today’s numbers are “a lot higher,” the CDPHE is “dealing with trying to process the backlog” before more accurate statistics are available.
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