Colorado marijuana legalization: Will the state’s ambitious plan to track every plant work?

The Feds Just Conducted a Massive Raid on Colorado Marijuana Growers—and Weed Growers Were Thrilled

The Feds Just Conducted a Massive Raid on Colorado Marijuana Growers—and Weed Growers Were Thrilled

Inside Colorado's marijuana economy.
Dec. 19 2013 11:28 AM

Watched Pot

Colorado has a wildly ambitious plan to track every legal marijuana plant from seed to sale. Will it work?

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Let’s follow the lifespan a single Kosher Kush plant grown by the Clinic, a Denver-area medical marijuana chain comprised of three grow facilities and six dispensaries. When a clipping is taken from a “mother plant” at one of the facilities’ nurseries to create a clone (growing directly from seed can lead to greater genetic variation and less product consistency), it’s designated for a particular Clinic retail location and, as required by Colorado law, tagged with a unique serial number that will stay with it as it matures and flowers. Once the plant is harvested, it’s weighed, then weighed again after it’s been hung to dry, to account for water loss. Then it’s weighed a third time after being trimmed of its stalks and stems (the trim is also weighed before it’s discarded, so that every last bit of the plant is accounted for). Finally, the Kosher Kush is packaged and transported via a carefully traced delivery route to its predetermined Clinic shop, all the while sporting a sticker emblazoned with its serial number. This number is entered into the store’s inventory system, so the sale of each bit of the plant can also be registered. All to ensure that not one iota of this Kosher Kush ends up somewhere it doesn’t belong.

Colorado is requiring marijuana operations like Denver Relief to maintain video surveillance of the production process.

Photo by Ry Prichard

As an added precaution, Colorado is taking a page from casinos’ “eyes in the sky” camera systems, requiring marijuana operations to maintain video surveillance of the production process, keeping several weeks’ worth of footage on file and available for inspection. According to Clinic general manager Ryan Cook, that equals 40 to 60 cameras at each of his grow facilities, about 16 cameras at each of his stores, and 12 terabytes of video footage stored on a series of $50,000 servers.

Now, imagine this production process spread across the 745 grow facilities, 517 dispensaries, and 140 marijuana-infused product facilities all across the state. No wonder, then, that according to a recent state audit of Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division, the tracking program hasn’t worked out as planned. The high-tech system the division planned to put in place to digitally track every pot plant? It was over budget—and not yet completed. The transit manifests for all marijuana delivery routes and other tracking forms businesses are required to submit? None had been reviewed by division employees. And that’s just a sampling of the audit’s complaints. Like many government programs, Colorado’s marijuana enforcement divisions seemed to be trying to do way too much with too little money. As Marco Vasquez, the division's former chief, put it at the time, “We had a champagne wish list on a beer budget.”


From here on out, tracking Colorado’s marijuana only gets harder. Keeping an eye on an industry with 120,000 medical patients is far easier than keeping an eye on a recreational market that could be nearly limitless in size. Colorado has millions of possible adult users, and its tourist industry brings in millions more each year. So has Colorado overpromised on its oath to track every pot plant?

Hank Hasler deals with this question every day. A one-time sheriff’s deputy and former investigator for the Colorado Division of Gaming, which oversees the limited-stakes gambling that’s allowed in certain mountain towns, Hasler is now the MED agent in charge of field enforcement, which means he’s responsible for ensuring that marijuana businesses are keeping track of their pot. Last Friday, he stopped by one of the three Denver locations of the Pure Medical Dispensary chain to check on their compliance.

Pure, it turns out, is complying quite well. There are 48 security cameras capturing nearly every inch of the dispensary, grow facility, and commercial kitchen for making marijuana edibles that share the sprawling brick building in an industrial zone off a main highway. The company has also developed its own digital inventory system that far exceeds what’s required by the state’s tracking program, which is scheduled to finally launch in the next few weeks.

If Pure’s owner, Frank Quattrone, has complaints about the state’s enforcement program, it’s that he wishes it were as advanced as his own. There’ll be no easy way to connect his tracking system to the state’s less-thorough version, for example, meaning his employees will have to duplicate data entries, including entering sales data into the state’s system by hand. “It’ll be back to the Dark Ages,” Quattrone grumbles.

Leaving the inspection, Hasler says operations like Pure give him hope that it’s possible to keep track of all the pot. Savvy business owners know that keeping an eye on the pot is about much more than merely complying with state law. Diligence discourages employee theft, pinpoints choke points in production procedures, and helps calibrate inventory to consumer demand. As Quattrone puts it, “You want to know where your assets are.”

Still, Hasler believes it’ll be a while before every Colorado marijuana business operates like Quattrone’s. “Right now, I am seeing less enforcement than I expected,” he says. He’s seen marijuana operations with no business records whatsoever other than a moldy stack of harvest sheets, a pot shop illicitly growing its product on the roof of a strip mall, and a grower who insisted all she had to list on her product labels for cultivation ingredients, as required by law, were “sunshine and love.”

Such incidents make for good anecdotes—but aren’t necessarily a good sign for an industry working to become legitimate in the eyes of the DEA. “I’m in the middle of the biggest public policy development of our time,” says Hasler. “It’s fascinating, but sometimes, it could be a little less fascinating.”

Next up: Welcome to the Highest State: Colorado wrestles with the marijuana tourism that could arrive come Jan. 1. Will there be enough pot to go around?

Correction, Dec. 19, 2013: This article originally misspelled Colombian as Columbian.

Sam Kamin is professor and director of the Constitutional Rights and Remedies program at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

Joel Warner is a former Westword staff writer.