A bill that gets tougher on illegal home-grows received initial approval in the Colorado House Friday, but not until after a fierce debate over public safety and jailing people who need medical marijuana.
Rep. Steve Lebsock, D-Thornton, held up a stack of papers in the chamber, and delivered an emotional appeal to reject the measure.
"If this bill passes, we're putting patients in jail," he told House members. "Unbelievable!"
Supporters, however, said it was about weeding out "bad actors" who grow excessive amounts of pot in neighborhoods and sometimes steer it onto the black market.
House Bill 1220 was amended to make the statewide limit 16 home-grown plants instead of 12. Cities have the option of setting the number of plants lower than the maximum allowed, and many have. The contentious legislation has weathered numerous successful and unsuccessful amendments, but it's supported by law enforcement, the governor's office and leaders from both parties.
The bill is sponsored by House Majority Leader KC Becker, D-Boulder, and Minority Leader Cole Wist, R-Centennial.
"This is an important step Colorado needs to take to protect the medical and recreational marijuana system that we have in place," Becker said. "We have made commitments we're going to make sure that that system isn't used to divert marijuana into the illegal market. Right now there's a loophole where people can grow large amounts of marijuana at home legally and divert it onto the illegal market."
The bill originally would have made any violation a felony, but it now makes a first violation a petty offense with no jail time and a fine of up to $1,000. A second offense would be a felony. The range of penalties, including the amount of jail time, would be guided by the number of plants involved.
Lebsock tried to amend the bill to make the second offense a misdemeanor, as well, before a third violation is a felony, but the amendment failed.
"We're talking about patients here," Lebsock said. "We're not talking about cartels."
Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, D-Commerce City, said more serious laws are aimed at cartels, including racketeering, so House Bill 1220 would be of little impact, except on some medical marijuana users.
Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, who supported the amendment, read statistics showing that African-Americans and other people of color are still disproportionately charged with drug crimes.
"The burden of arrest has fallen disproportionately on the minority community," she said.
Herod said the penalties "felonize caregivers and patients with one extra plant."
Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Denver, said arresting people on a second offense for growing too much amounted to continuing President Reagan's war on drugs policy.
"This perpetuates the failed policies of the war on drugs that has hurt communities of color at the state and national level for decades," he said.
The bill still must pass on a recorded vote next week before moving to the Republican-led Senate.
Rep. Kevin Van Winkle, R-Highlands Ranch, noted the long hours of debate and compromises that had gone into the latest pot bill.
"This process is not done," he said. "It starts all over in the Senate, so, senators, have fun."
Other bills this session are getting tougher on the so-called gray-market marijuana that's grown legally before being sold on the black market.
House Bill 1221, which is scheduled to be heard on the House floor Monday, would create a grant program to help local law enforcement fight illegal sales of pot with training, education and help with law enforcement, as well as prosecution costs.