Where does Northern Colorado's medical marijuana come from? That depends on whom you ask.
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Local police and dispensaries say it's largely being grown locally, in homes and warehouses across the area, generally using systems sold ostensibly for growing hydroponic tomatoes and other food crops.
But the federal Drug Enforcement Administration's chief agent in Denver says there's "no possible way" that people growing three to six plants at a time could be meeting the massive demand that's now suddenly visible.
Jeffrey D. Sweetin, special agent in charge of the DEA's four-state Rocky Mountain Field Division, said his agents are seeing more and more large outdoor "grows," generally on national forest lands in the foothills, tended by armed guards brought in from other states specifically to protect the crops.
Capt. Jerry Schiager of Fort Collins Police Services said he's not aware of major amounts of marijuana being smuggled into Larimer County. Instead, he said, people are growing it inside basements and trailers and garages all over the city. Schiager said there are likely about 100 grow operations in Fort Collins at any one time.
"This is happening in a lot of basements in Fort Collins," he said. "There is money to be made in this. There are people who are growing pounds and pounds of marijuana."
Schiager said quality marijuana costs about $400 a pound to grow but sells for about $7,680 a pound.
Sgt. Joe Shellhammer of the Larimer County Sheriff's Office said much of the marijuana is being grown locally.
"The commercial operations in Larimer County have exploded," Shellhammer said. "And commercial operations run by felons have exploded."
Abundant Healing, a medical marijuana dispensary in Old Town, has its own "grow" in a nondescript warehouse in an industrial area not far from the shop. The building carries no signs indicating what is going on inside, where more than 100 plants are growing in large pots.
Sun lamps hung from the ceiling direct light on the plants, and fans circulate the air. The walls are lined with plastic and aluminum-covered boards to keep the heat in.
The skunky smell of plants fills the air.
The building is completely secure, said Drew Brown, co-owner of Abundant Healing. Video cameras monitor activity inside and outside the structure.
Security measures include lasers mounted on the walls to detect motion. Guard dogs spend their nights inside the building.
All city building codes were followed in retrofitting the building, Brown said.
"We're doing what they want us to do," he said. "We're following the rules; we just hope the rules don't change."
Other dispensary owners interviewed by the Coloradoan say they get their marijuana legally from people with proper state caregiver paperwork.
On Tuesday afternoon, a couple came into Dave Watson's Kind Care of Colorado dispensary at College Avenue and Trilby Road, offering to sell ounces of marijuana. Watson asked what kind they were offering - "Blueberry" - and declined, saying he already had an ample supply of that particular strain.
Users prize different strains for the different types of effects. Some strains are considered better for aiding sleep, while others are considered better for nausea or pain. Kind Care was recently offering strains ranging from Mack Truck to Weasel and Crypto Diesel.
Watson said there's plenty of locally grown marijuana available, a point echoed by Joe Dice, who owns The Grow Shop in Fort Collins. He said the number of people buying hydroponic gardening setups and indoor lighting kits indicates how many would-be growers are out there.
"Right now, it's a farmers market," he said. "There was a huge demand for supply. It's being met."
Dice's son Nick, who owns the Medical MJ Dispensary in Campus West, said some people have offered to sell him imported marijuana. He said he'd rather pay more to buy from local growers with caregiver licenses.
"It's not worth the risk to save a couple of hundred bucks," Dice said.
Sweetin, of the DEA, said his agents are seeing large indoor grows in warehouses, especially in the Denver area. He said many growers believe the Obama administration's decision on medical marijuana patients has given them "carte blanche" to grow thousands of plants at a time.
DEA agents in October made a series of marijuana raids around Larimer County, including in Fort Collins and Rist Canyon. Sweetin said he could not discuss the raids.
After the raids occurred, a DEA spokesman referred a Coloradoan reporter to remarks by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who issued guidelines telling federal drug agents to effectively de-prioritize enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states that have legalized the drug for medical purposes.
The guidelines made it clear that federal agents would enforce the federal laws when they find "commercial" pot-growing enterprises or when state marijuana-legalization laws are being invoked as a "pretext" by large-scale growers.
The DEA on Friday raided a Highlands Ranch grower who was featured in the media.
"Technically, every dispensary in the state is in blatant violation of federal law," Sweetin told The Denver Post on Friday. "The time is coming when we go into a dispensary, we find out what their profit is, we seize the building and we arrest everybody. They're violating federal law; they're at risk of arrest and imprisonment."
At the Way to Grow organic and hydroponic gardening store on East Mulberry Street, the shelves are stocked with multi-spectrum grow lights, ventilation systems, organic plant foods and activated-carbon filters to scrub plant odors from exhaust air. The store's owner, Corey Inniss, did not respond to a request for comment.
Sweetin said such stores have long operated with a "wink and a nod" toward marijuana growers, pointing out that few people would buy such expensive systems to grow tomatoes.
"I've been in hundreds, and hundreds and hundreds of grows. I've never met anyone who grows hydroponic tomatoes or orchids," Sweetin said. "We've created a great market for people who are not at all concerned about medicinal needs. They are simply interested in making money."
Schiager said he believes regulations are necessary to move grows from residential areas into industrial parks, where buildings are properly equipped with high-capacity electrical wiring.
At a presentation Feb. 8, Schiager showed pictures of basements festooned with wires, lights and irrigation systems.
"You take a warm, moist environment and you put electrical wires in there," Schiager said. "That's one of the things that's very dangerous about this. It's going on in residential zones."
BY TREVOR HUGHES
February 15, 2010
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Local officials in Colorado say medical marijuana supply grown locally, DEA disagrees