Demand for medical marijuana in Colorado has grown so fast in the past few months that it has outstripped the production of legal "grow" operations and is now probably being supplied by international drug cartels, say some local sheriffs and agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
And as dispensaries proliferate throughout the state, police and lawyers say they are worried about the peripheral crime rising around the shops intended to function as pharmacies, selling medical marijuana prescribed to people who suffer one of eight conditions, ranging from chronic pain to glaucoma.
"Dispensaries are popping up like mushrooms," said DEA special agent-in-charge Jeffrey Sweetin. "Now we have thousands of 20- to 25-year-olds carrying cards. And the cartels are getting rich off this law."
Last summer, the Colorado Board of Health declined to limit the number of patients that medical marijuana dispensaries could service.
The result, health department spokesman Mark Salley said, was a boom in the number of people who received cards allowing them to purchase medical pot. There are now 13,000 people in possession of such cards.
Colorado, which approved medical marijuana in 2000, is one of 14 states that permit it.
The number of Colorado dispensaries is not tracked by the state health department or any other agency.
Legal grow operations linked to dispensaries are limited to six cannabis plants each.
By contrast, most of the street pot comes from big, outdoor grows, such as the three operations — within a 5-mile radius of Chatfield Reservoir — busted by DEA officials last summer. Sweetin said one grow had 14,000 plants that averaged 5 to 6 feet tall.
He said the average illegal indoor grow is 100 to 200 plants averaging 3 feet tall.
Sheriff Bill Masters of San Miguel County, which includes Telluride, said the number of medical-marijuana users in his county has grown so fast that he, too, is concerned about where the dope is coming from.
"The numbers don't seem to add up to me," he said. "It seems difficult to supply people with the number of plants allowed. My suspicions are that marijuana might be coming from other growers."
Competition among dispensaries has become intense, and security concerns are rising.
Last month, several men wearing jackets identifying themselves as federal agents attempted to rob a marijuana dispensary in the 1900 block of South Cherry Street in Denver.
According to police, the dispensary operators drew weapons and a gunfight erupted in the street. No one was reported injured and no arrests were made, police said.
Last weekend, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a directive advising prosecutors not to pursue cases against medical-marijuana users and suppliers who follow state laws.
"Supply (of marijuana) is not directly addressed in (state law), and we think it's one of the areas that could lead to criminal elements being involved," said Longmont city attorney Eugene Mei, noting that the city is seeking a 90-day moratorium on new dispensaries.
In the wake of the Justice Department advisory, the DEA's Sweetin said "it's business as usual" in terms of enforcement. "We're leaving cancer patients alone," he said. "But we're not being told to leave the dispensaries alone.
"We are looking at dispensaries that are not in clear and unambiguous compliance with the state law. We are looking at dispensaries that are using the state law to circumvent federal law."
There is big money to be made in medical marijuana.
At the Peace in Medicine dispensary at 20th and Arapahoe streets in Denver, near the federal courthouse, a quarter-ounce of high-grade pot sells for $120. Good-quality pot on the street sells for an average of $80 per quarter ounce, according to an active user.
"This economy is feeding the illegal organized crime element. They are getting their money in the range of hundreds of thousands of dollars," Sweetin said. "The dispensaries are paying their bills, their weaponry, their profits."
By Mike McPhee and Victoria Barbatelli
October 21, 2009