On a crisp late-autumn day last month, federal agents raided more than a dozen medical marijuana dispensaries and grow facilities in Denver and Boulder, Colo. Armed Drug Enforcement Administration officers wearing camouflaged fatigues and black balaclavas smashed store windows, stacked crates of evidence in U-Haul trucks, and confiscated so many pot plants that the piles of foliage had to be removed by front-loader. It was the largest federal medical marijuana bust in Colorado history—and it occurred less than two months before the state is set to launch the world’s first legalized pot system on Jan. 1.
How did Colorado’s marijuana industry react to the raids? If anything, with approval.
“Really, I see enforcement actions happening as a sign our industry is maturing and this program is working,” Mike Elliott, executive director of the Colorado-based Medical Marijuana Industry Group, told the Denver Post the day of the bust. Even Mason Tvert, the celebrated firebrand of the local marijuana movement, was unusually circumspect. “If a business is suspected of violating state laws, they will likely face increased scrutiny, and if they are found to be in violation, they will likely face consequences,” he told the Post.
Why the calm reaction? Mainly it was because the busts did not appear to be an attack on the state’s medical marijuana system, as has been the case with DEA raids in other states, but a targeted action against a few bad apples who were apparently flouting Colorado’s medical marijuana regulations—allegedly selling pot out of state, hiding profits, and working with Colombian drug cartels.* In other words, the raids reinforced Colorado’s medical marijuana rules rather than undermining them. This was good news, since Colorado’s medical regulations form the basis of the recreational pot rules that will go into effect on Jan. 1.
The busts, in fact, were exactly the sort of enforcement Colorado policymakers and marijuana stakeholders should want right now. It’s not easy obeying Colorado’s complicated, time-consuming, and expensive marijuana rules, so those who jump through all the state’s hoops want to be sure that the competition does, too. If someone is cheating, they can cut into everyone else’s profits. That’s why nearly everyone in the industry wants the cheaters busted, since it suggests the regulatory system is working and it rewards those in compliance. (Hence the tip line posted on Colorado’s marijuana enforcement website that folks can use to report on scofflaws and “keep our industry legitimate.”) It’s why marijuana policy expert Mark Kleiman predicts legalization won’t stop pot busts anytime soon. “[T]he implication of … a legal commercial market is not that you need less enforcement,” he told Patrick Radden Keefe of The New Yorker. “In the long run, there shouldn’t be much of an illegal business … In the short run, though, the answer is just the opposite.”
So, what, exactly, are law enforcement and law-abiding marijuana businesses trying to prevent—what are Colorado’s extensive marijuana laws supposed to do? The big concern has always been “diversion”—taking marijuana ostensibly grown for legal purposes and offloading it to the black market or selling it out of state. No one wants a Colorado Winnebago pulled over on its way to Kansas packed with Maui Wowie. And no one wants to see a dispensary owner busted for selling regulated marijuana in an unregulated way—such as to underage buyers. And, of course, the state wants to be sure that all sales are being recorded, since unrecorded sales mean less tax revenue.
To minimize diversion, Colorado has vowed to track every legit marijuana plant—whether medical or recreational—from seed to sale. The stakes are high; in an August memorandum on marijuana legalization, the U.S. Justice Department made clear that any such enforcement program “must not only contain robust controls and procedures on paper; it must also be effective in practice.” If the regulations are just a paper tiger, there’s still a chance the feds could shut the whole thing down.
Is it really possible to track every marijuana plant from seed to sale? Right now, for example, according to Colorado’s medical marijuana law, there can be six marijuana plants for every registered marijuana patient. With 112,000 registered patients in the state, that means there could be up to 672,000 legal marijuana plants in Colorado, each of which can produce several ounces of smokeable product in the span of a few months. (This is just the medical side of the equation; since Amendment 64 passed in 2012, every Coloradan has been entitled to grow up to six plants for personal use.) So how do you keep an eye on all of that pot?