DENVER – Hoping to preserve its marijuana law under the next president, Colorado is planning a slate of legislation designed to crack down on pot that is grown legally but then sold on the black market.
The goal is to cut down on complaints that Colorado's liberal allowances for growing pot without a license has created a thriving network of illegal growers. Colorado allows medical pot patients to grow up to 99 plants, far beyond other marijuana states, and it also allows recreational users to group their allotted six plants into massive co-ops, entire greenhouses of pot that aren't tracked or taxed.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper says the state's generous pot allowances make it almost impossible for cops to tell legitimate growers from black-market fronts, and he is calling for a several new laws to crack down. Proposals include a ban on group recreational pot grows and new paperwork requirements for people who grow medical pot.
With uncertainty looming about how the next president will approach marijuana, Colorado regulators say it's time to ramp up efforts to crush the black market and show the feds that Colorado isn't letting weed seep into other states.
"We do need to clean up this system and make sure we're beyond reproach for how well we're regulating marijuana," said Andrew Freedman, the governor's marijuana coordinator.
Colorado has been sued by two neighboring states, Nebraska and Oklahoma, for allegedly not keeping marijuana within its own borders. That lawsuit was dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court, but neighboring states continue to gripe that Colorado's friendly reminders at airports and interstate highways aren't sufficient to keep marijuana out of their states.
Freedman points to six large criminal raids in the last two years as evidence that black market pot dealers are exploiting the state. The most recent case happened this fall, when federal agents and local law enforcement simultaneously raided a dozen homes in southeast Colorado, seizing 22,400 pounds of marijuana. Investigators say that weed was intended to be taken out of state.
"We're hearing from federal officials, 'Hey listen, this is a concern,'" Freedman said.
The governor's plans, outlined to lawmakers in advance of the 2017 legislative session, include a statewide 12-plant limit in private homes, which is still more generous than other marijuana states such as California (6 plants) and Washington (4 plants before having to register with the state).
Some of Colorado's largest jurisdictions, including Denver and Colorado Springs, already have those 12-plant limits through local ordinances. So it's not clear how many people would be affected by the new limit.
The governor also wants lawmakers to ban collective recreational grows and to require caregivers to keep track of their plants and where they go.
But Colorado has tried cracking down on marijuana caregivers before, with limited success. Colorado's pot laws are in the state constitution, so residents literally have constitutional rights to high plant counts and to designate others to grow plants for them.
Hickenlooper's plans are already running into sharp criticism from marijuana activists who say Colorado is simply trying to boost taxes by making it increasingly hard to grow pot instead of buying it from the store.
"They're trying to do the best they can to drive everyone into the taxed model," said Jason Warf, head of the Southern Colorado Cannabis Council, which represents pot retailers, patients and caregivers who grow pot for sick people.
Some limits on caregivers have already been approved. Starting in January, caregivers will need to register with the state, a reaction to law enforcement complaints that they have no way of knowing whether a pot grower is actually growing for legitimate patients.
Teri Robnett, head of the Cannabis Patients Alliance, called on Colorado to wait for the already-in-the-works limits to take effect before passing more regulations.
"We continue to restrict and restrict and not see how anything is working," Robnett said.