The Denver Fire Department issued 58 permits for warehouses to grow marijuana in non-licensed facilities last year – marijuana not to be sold in dispensaries. This marijuana was to be grown primarily by caregivers for consumption by medical users, or for the grower’s personal use.
With the permits, the department was acknowledging state law, approved by voters through a constitutional amendment in 2000, which gave caregivers the right to grow six plants for five patients and six for themselves, or 36 plants.
But when the Denver City Council dropped the hammer on the permitted warehouses on March 23, it was because the city’s fire department presented evidence that the process had gotten far out of hand. Caregivers had rented warehouse space collectively, and in some buildings hundreds or even as many as 2,000 marijuana plants were being grown.
The council’s decision came just before a Colorado grand jury indicted more than 30 people accused of growing marijuana in Denver warehouses under the guise of caregiving. The indictments said much of the marijuana was shipped out of Colorado for illegal sale, mostly to Minnesota.
The indictments were based on raids last October when the Denver Police Department, the Drug Enforcement Agency and other law enforcement groups seized about 4,600 pounds of marijuana, nearly 2,000 marijuana plants, 10 pounds of hash oil, and approximately $1.4 million in cash, according to the Colorado Attorney General’s Office.
In making its case for a change in city code, the fire department estimated that the average plant count in any of the 58 permitted but non-licensed warehouse grows was about 1,000 plants, with the largest containing closer to 2,000 plants.
While some patients receive legal waivers for more than six plants, and some caregivers can be waived to grow for more than five patients, the sheer numbers of plants jammed into some of the warehouses was alarming, officials said.
“It is very unlikely that these numbers of plants support only caregiving or personal, private use of marijuana,” said Dan Rowland, a spokesperson for the City and County of Denver, in an email.
“Instances of caregivers and patients with extended plant count waivers are extremely rare and were intended to be for rural settings where there is not enough marijuana, or in places where access to medical marijuana stores is limited. In Denver, access to medical marijuana is not an and issue.”
The caregivers maintained they had simply moved into the warehouses with other caregivers to share expenses. City Council was unmoved. The fire department showed photos of operations that did not pass safety inspections and grew a suspiciously large number of plants.
In a unanimous vote, 11-0, the council passed a new ordinance that would allow no more than 36 marijuana plants to be grown at any non-residential site, except licensed cultivation facilities. This would mean that any of the caregiver facilities growing more than 36 plants would have to get rid of hundreds of plants.
“The laws that might be used to control and regulate the safety of these locations – the general zoning, fire and building codes – have not been sufficient in ensuring safe and compliant grow facilities,” Rowland said. “These public safety and health concerns occur at mostly unknown locations and demand immediate action.”
According to officials, 50 of the 58 permitted warehouses have now been issued a general summons for code violations. Some citations were for windows sealed shut, or for flammable chemicals in an unstable environment. Fire department officials said weapons were also found, and that they believed many of the plants were being sold unlawfully.
A spokesperson for the caregiver community said growers were only doing what they thought was right.
“I think the firefighters and law enforcement are just really frustrated from having busted some really seedy operations,“ said Larisa Bolivar, the executive director of the Cannabis Caregivers Alliance. “And I completely understand that, but the groups I work with are trying to do everything right, and just didn’t really have a chance or a presence in this.”
Some members of the medical marijuana community joined together before the decision last week to discuss how to move forward after the change in municipal code.
For Coltyn Turner and his mother, Wendy Turner, the caregiver model is important. Coltyn, 15, takes two capsules of high concentrate marijuana oil each day to combat Crohn’s disease, a digestive tract disorder that can be painful and debilitating. Once confined to a wheelchair, he’s now living like a normal teen.
“Cannabis was really a last resort for me,” Coltyn said. “I thought if it won’t give me cancer – my other medications almost gave me cancer – and well, I started taking cannabis and I was gaining weight. I started getting taller, and I finally started feeling normal.”
Coltyn’s mother doesn’t grow marijuana or make the oil Coltyn uses. The ability to access a caregiver has been a huge relief, both he and his mother said. They are waiting to learn the impact of Denver’s new code, which came swiftly – within 20 days of the fire department’s request.
Yet, caregiver grows have existed for years, and the state legislature has taken up a similar issue as part of this year’s medical marijuana sunset review.
“Caregivers are actually anticipated in the constitution and I think the caregivers still have a role to play,” said Brian Tobias with the Department of Regulatory Agencies, and responsible for the medical marijuana sunset review. “Medical marijuana on a commercial scale is still not allowed in a lot of the state, and caregivers offer the only viable option in those areas.”
The Department of Regulatory Agencies estimates that, statewide, only about five percent of the 3,000 registered caregivers actually register their grow with the state. The solution proposed to the General Assembly is to enforce registration, already required by law, with penalties including fines.
In Denver, some caregivers are threatening to go to court to keep their permitted warehouse grows in operation.
“It’s a lot of money to go through making sure everything is up to code and getting all of the permits and if they (caregivers) win at the court level, it’s going to be another burden on taxpayers,” Bolivar said. “What I think is needed is a license in Denver for caregivers to grow, a sort of compromise.”
The new regulations in Denver will be enforced by threat of a $1,000 fine or up to a year in jail.
Updated 12:55 p.m., March 26.