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Denver marijuana grower charged in federal court

February 16, 2010

DENVER • A man from suburban Denver who said he was growing 224 pot plants for patients was charged Tuesday in federal court in a case that medical marijuana proponents said has them living in fear that they'll be next.

Chris Bartkowicz was taken to jail on one count of possession with intent to manufacture, dispense, or distribute a controlled substance. He appeared in court Tuesday and will remain in custody until his next hearing Thursday.

His high-profile arrest happened Friday after he told a television station that he hoped to make hundreds of thousands of dollars from his pot growing business, which he operated out of a house near a school.

Marijuana dispensary proponents said the criminal case against Bartkowicz runs contrary to President Barack Obama's administration stance on medical marijuana, which is not to target those who are in compliance with state law.

But that's where the issue gets murky, proponents said, because the voter amendment approved in 2000 is silent on dispensaries and they're asking lawmakers for guidance.

"There are many people in this community who have to live in fear," said Brett Barney, an attorney with Coloradans For Medical Marijuana Legislation. "We want the clarification so our providers won't have to go sleep at night worrying about whether rogue agents won't come crashing through their door."

Federal authorities said the matter isn't so complicated: Marijuana is illegal under federal law. Colorado is one of 14 states that allows those with certain doctor diagnosed medical conditions to register to use marijuana.

"State law has no impact on the federal law when a marijuana case goes into federal court," said U.S. Attorney Dave Gaouette.

Bartkowicz's attorney, Joseph Saint-Veltri, did not return messages.

Colorado law allows users to possess 2 ounces of usable marijuana and six plants. Bartkowicz had 224 marijuana plants growing in his basement and garage and showed investigators that was he was providing marijuana to 12 patients, which means he would only be able to have 72 plants under state law, Gaouette said.

"Those amounts are inconsistent with purported compliance with state law. That activity is of federal interest," he said.

Denver DEA spokesman Mike Turner said investigators have raided a number of marijuana growing operations in recent months, including some in Fort Collins and Colorado Springs. Some of the people charged said they were growing medical marijuana, said U.S. District Attorney spokesman Jeff Dorschner.

"People shouldn't be surprised. Anything that's a big criminal enterprise, we're going to take a look at it," Turner said of Friday's raid of Bartkowicz's home.

Colorado's marijuana industry, with dispensaries opening across the state, exploded during the summer after the health department lifted rules that limited medical marijuana providers to five patients. The number of people who have registered with the state to use medical marijuana has jumped from about 5,000 last January to nearly 17,000. State officials don't have a good count of marijuana dispensaries because they are not licensed by the state.

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers has said regulating dispensaries would legitimize the industry.

"That issue should go back to the voters," said Suthers spokesman Mike Saccone.

Meanwhile, a Pueblo jury rendered a split verdict Saturday in a state case involving Tom Sexton, a medical marijuana provider whose home was raided in 2007. Police seized 128 plants and he was charged him with cultivation and possession of marijuana.

The jury acquitted Sexton of cultivation but convicted him of possession. Sexton's attorney, Karl Tameler, said he's an appeal.

"There's a little confusion," Tameler said of the split verdict.

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