I Thought My Suburban Pot Secret Was Safe ... Then the DEA Crackdowns Started
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While this turned out to be generally true, there were a number of worrisome developments once my plans were too far along to stop, primarily a steady stream of arrests and DEA raids on people using the medical marijuana law. The most high-profile was the case of Chris Bartkowicz, a suburban grower in nearby Denver, who was raided by the DEA and busted for growing more than 200 plants. He came to the attention of the DEA by going on the nightly news — using his real name and not bothering to obscure his face — to boast about his grow operation, an unfortunate decision compounded by the fact that his house was located within 1,000 feet of an elementary school, an automatic sentence enhancement.
I had no plans to even remotely follow his example. Once I qualified as a medical marijuana patient (with the help of a doctor whose definition of “severe pain” helpfully included my complaints about a sore back) I would only be growing six plants, the maximum allowed under state law for individual patients. My home is half a mile from the nearest school. And I obviously didn’t intend to issue a press release to the TV stations about my little project
But still. Bartkowicz faced 40 years in prison (he took a plea bargain and will serve five). I was fairly certain that the DEA wouldn’t waste its time taking down such a small-timer like me, but once the pot began to bloom in the basement and become fragrant, even I started to wonder if they’d somehow multiplied from six into 600. A Catch-22 of the state medical marijuana law is that the only way you can prove you’re in compliance with it is after you’ve been busted. If it’s the DEA that does the busting, whether you’re toeing the line or not is immaterial — federal law trumps state law.
The slamming doors in the night turned out to be nothing, of course. Just some neighbors coming home from a late dinner. Is this really worth it? I asked myself, crouched in my underwear and peering through the curtains.
The answer was yes, and for a most unexpected reason. Before this experiment, I was perfectly ambiguous about whether marijuana was legal or not. I wasn’t opposed to recreational smoking but because I don’t use it myself, I haven’t felt much enthusiasm to agitate for its legalization. If you’d pressed me, I would agree that the expense of enforcing its total prohibition — an expense borne not just by taxpayers, to the tune of some $13 billion annually, but also by those who are busted and face personal and financial ruin — makes little sense, but also that there are more pressing issues to deal with. And like many who haven’t given the matter much thought, I had some skepticism about its purported medical benefits. Without a pressing medical need prompting me to find out for myself, I was happy to let more interested parties hash it out.
What propelled me into the debate was the outrage medical marijuana laws had generated, not just in Colorado but across the country. The often ill-considered over-reaching by marijuana proponents — for many reasonable people who are undecided about pot, garish dispensaries blazing neon pot leaves from their local strip malls feel like being given the finger — was nothing compared to the militaristic hysteria unleashed by the federal government. Cops were busting into homes and blowing away the family pets looking for reefer and in many cases, turning up next to nothing. Perfectly sober businesses (to speak in relative terms) that followed the letter of their state laws were being pulverized under the heels of DEA agents. Although my personal experiences with marijuana are limited (and well in the past), I knew enough about the effects of pot to realize that the governmental reaction was far out of proportion to the actual threat.