Bob Crouse didn't think he'd still be fighting. Standing outside the City Administration Building downtown with a cardboard sign and a cadre of medical marijuana supporters on Wednesday, June 29, he remembers this exact day four years ago. It was 4:20 p.m., he says, that a jury decided he was not guilty on charges of felony possession with intent to distribute.
That moment of elation contrasted the nightmarish events leading up to it. Diagnosed with leukemia in 2007, Crouse says his prospects looked grim until he started medicating with homemade "phoenix tears" — a concentrated oil extracted from cannabis flower. That regimen started killing his cancer cells, but in May 2011, local police cut down and confiscated his 55 marijuana plants and pounds of processed flower. After being acquitted, he sued to get his medicine back — some $300,000 worth — plants that ultimately were returned dead and unusable.
The Colorado Court of Appeals upheld the trial court's order that law enforcement officials return his property, a decision District Attorney Dan May appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court. In June, the high court announced it would hear the case. Now, as his legal and medical battle continues, Crouse has a sickening sense of déja vu.
"Those of us with medical necessity, we know more about this plant than anyone," he told the Indy. "But instead of asking us for help, they're coming after us again."
He's referring to a city ordinance enacted in mid-May restricting home grows to 12 plants tops, regardless of doctors' recommendations. Since that took effect May 23, patients and caregivers who grow more have been bracing for the worst.
Recent statements by Mayor John Suthers fueled anxiety. He told the Gazette that similar to Pueblo in recent months, this city will see a string of raids against large-scale residential grow operations this summer. And if Suthers had his way, home grows of any size would be forbidden here.
Reportedly, shutting down interstate trafficking operations is top priority. Agent Tim Scott of the Drug Enforcement Agency told Council that 186 home grows of that type are on his office's radar in the Pikes Peak region. That was in April, before the 12-plant limit, when growing hundreds of plants for out-of-state black markets was just as illegal as today.
But now, under the new local limit, Bob Crouse and others have been lumped in with the criminal syndicates. Will the hammer come down on them, too?
Despite law enforcement officials' urgency in advocating for the ordinance, Lt. Mark Comte of CSPD's Metro Vice, Narcotics and Intelligence Division says there've been "very few if any" cases since it went into effect over a month ago. "It's only one aspect of all that we do, so it's not a primary focus," he told the Indy. Neighbor complaints are the foremost way the authorities get tipped off, but Comte says utilities records — especially overboard electricity draws — are "a tool that's available to us." The plant limit will be enforced whether the violator is a patient with documented medical need or not, though he emphasizes that the department prefers voluntary compliance to criminal penalty (a fine no more than $2,500 and jail time no longer than 198 days). Because enforcement duties straddle CSPD and the city's land use and zoning department, the nuances are still getting teased out according to Comte.
So for the time being, the tense situation continues.
Back outside the City Admin Building, Crouse gestured to the gathered patients, many of them vets and children.
"If our medicine gets taken away, someone will die," he said. "These unconstitutional policies are killing us."
Later that afternoon after the protest, the city's new marijuana working group convened for the first time. Member Rebecca Lockwood, who makes cannabis oil for several sick kids, said during that meeting it became instantly clear that legislative relief is totally off the table. She plans to leave the working group and sue the city as soon as she raises enough funds for a lawyer.
"I am not a criminal," Lockwood said. "I'm doing what any parent would do in this situation."