By Jordan Wirfs-Brock, Lauren Seaton and Andrea Sutherland
A loophole in Colorado’s medical marijuana rules means thousands of pounds of surplus marijuana are left to feed the black market here and in neighboring states, an I-News Network investigation has found.
A new state law, which took effect July 1, doesn’t clear up the legal haze surrounding this surplus.
The constitutional amendment that legalized medical marijuana in Colorado a decade ago allows caregivers to have three mature plants and two ounces of usable marijuana per patient. But those three plants can yield much more than the two ounces the law allows. Under ideal growing conditions, the yield can reach more than a pound per plant.
That means every grower could have surplus marijuana that’s legal while growing on the plant, but illegal the moment it’s harvested.
Learn how the medical marijuana surplus occurs.
Hear from an Army veteran who once fought the war on drugs, but now uses medical marijuana and fears losing his benefits.(2:22 minutes)
See the anatomy of a marijuana plant and how each part is used..
“There’s not any provision about surplus in the constitution,” said Michael Dohr, Senior Staff Attorney for the Colorado General Assembly, who helped pen the new law. “That’s always been an open question.”
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment says roughly 94,000 people are currently registered medical marijuana patients. If Colorado growers have three mature plants per registered patient, they can legally harvest nearly 12,000 pounds of usable marijuana, or about six tons. However, those plants could produce a surplus of 20 to 64 tons of marijuana if the plants yield just three to eight ounces per plant.
Colorado’s new medical marijuana law doesn’t address the potential surplus that the original amendment neglected.
Some 5,000 people currently are applying each week for their medical marijuana registration, health department officials said. If that rate holds steady, the number of medical marijuana patients could double in less than two years – and so could the surplus.
Colorado isn’t alone. The 14 states and District of Columbia where medical marijuana is legal take different approaches to setting limits on the amount each patient is allowed. Alaska allows patients one ounce of usable marijuana and three mature plants; Michigan allows patients 2.5 ounces and 12 plants of any size; Rhode Island allows patients and caregivers 2.5 ounces, 12 mature plants, and 12 seedlings.
Rob Corry, attorney and prominent voice in medical marijuana debates, thinks regulating the number of plants is problematic. “Basing [the law] on plant count is irrational,” Corry said. “I’ve seen plants that are 20 feet tall and plants that are two millimeters tall. Plant count made more sense to the lay person than canopy size, so that’s what [lawmakers] went with.”
He doesn’t think surplus is an issue.
“I don’t think there is a surplus,” Corry said. “The moment you harvest, yeah you’re getting more than the legal amount.”
But, Corry said, the new law now in effect is likely to create a shortage of supply because it bars growers with criminal pasts.
“The law takes experienced growers out of the business,” Corry said. “They’re taking out half of the good growers.”
Ryan Hartman, a long-time Boulder resident and co-owner of Boulder Wellness Center, is navigating his way around the legal potholes.
To minimize his surplus, Hartman purposefully grows fewer plants than he is legally allowed. Yet he acknowledges some of his growers can harvest as much as 1.5 pounds of marijuana from a single plant. Plants can produce surplus with even lower yields.
“If I were to have three plants and I did it right, each plant would yield me around a quarter pound, which is four ounces,” Hartman said. “I’m allowed to have two ounces but my three plants just produced 12 ounces, so what am I supposed to do with that other ten ounces?”
The law doesn’t say.
The laws in each of these states set up scenarios for surplus marijuana.
“If we have extra, we just give it away,” said Hartman. “We can’t control what we get from the plant, so for a couple hours we’re illegal.”
Commander Jerry Peters of the North Metro drug task force in Adams County said some growers sell their surplus. Keeping it can be a security risk.
“You sit on [surplus] at your business, or your house, you are opening yourself to being ripped off,” said Peters. “It’s going out the back door.”
That back door can lead to the black market – and sometimes out of Colorado.
Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and there are added penalties for transporting the drug across state lines.
“A lot of people we’re getting are taking it out of state. Pounds of it,” said Peters, who named Oklahoma, Wyoming and Nebraska as targets.
Alex Moreno, project coordinator of the Western Nebraska Intelligence and Narcotics Group and police chief in Scottsbluff, confirmed that marijuana is flowing into his state from Colorado. The task force has observed grow operations in northeastern Colorado unloading surplus on Nebraska, where pot is still illegal and sells for a higher price.
“It’s a pattern that is likely to increase here in Nebraska, particularly as it becomes more available and more widespread in Colorado,” Moreno said.
An interview with an Army veteran who used to fight the war on drugs, but now uses medical marijuana and fears losing his benefits.
(Audio-only, running time: 2:22)