Federal drug-enforcement agents Friday raided the home of a Highlands Ranch man who a day earlier bragged in a 9News report about the large and profitable medical-marijuana-growing operation in his basement.
Along with the raid, Jeffrey Sweetin, the Drug Enforcement Administration's special agent in charge of the Denver office, sent a message to anyone involved in Colorado's increasingly profitable medical-marijuana industry.
"It's still a violation of federal law," Sweetin said. "It's not medicine. We're still going to continue to investigate and arrest people."
Agents at the scene Friday evening said the marijuana grower, Chris Bartkowicz, had been taken into custody. Jeff Dorschner, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Denver, said the grower would be held over the long Presidents Day weekend before a decision on charges is made Tuesday.
"The U.S. attorney's office will review the evidence the DEA collected before we make a determination whether we will prosecute," Dorschner said.
DEA agents converged on the house Friday afternoon and, before leaving several hours later, removed dozens of marijuana plants in black plastic trash bags as well as numerous high-powered growing lights.
On Thursday night, 9News promoted a story about Bartkowicz's operation, and on Friday morning, Bartkowicz was featured in a 9News story posted to its website and published in The Denver Post. The story was to air on television Friday night. He told the station he serves as a caregiver to a number of medical-marijuana patients and hoped to turn a profit this year in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"I'm definitely living the dream now," Bartkowicz told 9News.
One block from school
That story — coupled with the proximity of Bartkowicz's home to Sand Creek Elementary School, a block away — drew the attention of DEA agents.
A memo in October from Deputy U.S. Attorney General David Ogden said federal agents should not target people in "clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana." The memo led many in Colorado's medical-marijuana community to believe that federal agents would no longer raid medical-marijuana dispensaries or growers.
But Sweetin said the memo does nothing to change federal law, which makes marijuana illegal, and instead mostly addresses treatment of medical-marijuana patients and small-scale growers.
"Prosecution of commercial enterprises that unlawfully market and sell marijuana for profit continues to be an enforcement priority of the department," the memo states.
Guidelines included in the memo to distinguish between lawful medical-marijuana operations and unlawful ones include whether the operations produce more plants or generate more money than state laws intend. Sweetin said those guidelines put much of Colorado's medical-marijuana industry in the crosshairs and that he has been gathering information on dispensary owners and their operations for months.
Risking arrest, jail time
"Technically, every dispensary in the state is in blatant violation of federal law," he said. "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."
Matt Brown, executive director of the pro-dispensary Coloradans for Medical Marijuana Regulation, said Sweetin's statements are troubling. Brown argued that the federal memo's hands-off order covers everyone in compliance with their state's medical-marijuana laws, a group Brown said includes dispensaries in Colorado. Brown said Friday's raid highlights the need for lawmakers to create clear rules for how dispensaries should operate.
"All we're trying to do is follow the rules," he said.
Bartkowicz had talked to 9News about his efforts to keep a low profile and said he didn't think his neighbors knew about what he was doing inside his house. But several neighbors said Friday that they had suspicions after seeing activity late at night at the house and other puzzling activities.
"I think it's awful," neighbor Linda Palmer said of the marijuana-growing operation. "There's an elementary school right there."
By John Ingold
February 13, 2010
Video can be found at Marijuana next door