DENVER – A Colorado pot grower trying a first-in-the-nation drug defense based on Obama administration memos about marijuana saw his case take a serious blow Wednesday when a federal judge felled the effort.
Christopher Bartkowicz wanted to argue he shouldn't face federal marijuana cultivation charges because he started his basement pot-growing business after seeing memos from Department of Justice officials indicating the U.S. government wouldn't pursue pot cases in states that allow medical marijuana.
But U.S. District Judge Philip A. Brimmer sided with federal prosecutors who argued the memos aren't the same as making marijuana legal under federal law.
Brimmer chided Bartkowicz for believing that the memos by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and another Justice official gave him permission to grow large amounts of pot in his basement without fearing federal prosecution.
"Anyone reading (the memos) would quite clearly understand that cultivating marijuana is a violation of federal law," Brimmer said.
Federal agents raided Bartkowicz's suburban Denver home in February after he showed off his pot business to a reporter from KUSA television. Bartkowicz testified in a motions hearing Wednesday that he wasn't afraid to show his pot on TV because he thought as long as he followed state pot rules, he wouldn't be in trouble.
"I felt I was following state law," Bartkowicz said. "I felt no fear in doing a public interview."
Brimmer also rejected a raft of proposals Bartkowicz suggested, including a claim that he was being unfairly singled out for prosecution because he talked to a reporter.
Brimmer also rebuffed Bartkowicz's claim that new versions of medical marijuana are therapeutic and shouldn't even be considered in the same federal drug category as other marijuana. The pot grower's attempts to subpoena the reporter and a Colorado state employee who oversees medical marijuana regulation were also rejected.
Finally, Brimmer ruled that the pot grower won't be allowed to call witnesses to argue that marijuana has medicinal value.
Bartkowicz, who has two previous drug convictions, faces a possible life sentence if convicted. His trial begins Nov. 1.
About a dozen medical marijuana activists protested outside the Denver courthouse, chanting "DEA, Go away!" and carrying signs decrying the case against Bartkowicz.
The pot grower didn't talk to reporters after the hearing. Before the proceedings began, Bartkowicz was greeted by medical marijuana patients who told him federal prosecutors were making him a scapegoat. Bartkowicz shook his head, said "I know."
His lawyer, Joseph Saint-Veltri, remarked throughout the hearing that the odd conflict between state and federal marijuana laws leaves pot smokers and state officials in legal limbo. Saint-Veltri pointed out that the signals from the Obama adminsitration about respecting state pot laws has prompted the proliferation of marijuana businesses in Colorado and other states.
"The federal government has condoned all this going on," Saint-Veltri said.