State lawmakers late Monday advanced a measure that aims at cracking down on the illegal diversion of marijuana.
House Bill 1220 would limit marijuana home grows to 12 plants statewide. Local jurisdictions, including Colorado Springs and Denver, have already limited home grows to 12 plants. But law enforcement felt there should be a statewide standard.
The bill passed the House Finance Committee 11-2, though it was heavily amended and other changes to the measure are expected.
A first offense would be a misdemeanor subject to a $1,000 fine. A second offense would carry a felony penalty. Lawmakers amended the bill, which originally made any offense a felony.
Lawmakers also signaled that they would take a look at the plant count limit in the bill, potentially raising it to 16.
Another bill, House Bill 1221, would reimburse local governments for home grow and diversion enforcement efforts. That bill was sent to the Appropriations Committee on a 12-1 vote.
Dozens of cannabis patients and caregivers attended the hearing, telling stories of producing medicine at home. Some of those patients said they need larger plant counts in order to produce concentrates and edibles. They called medical marijuana a "miracle."
Critics objected to the fact that the measures were introduced late Thursday and quickly scheduled in committee just days later, leaving less time to organize an opposition campaign.
But Rep. Cole Wist, R-Centennial, a sponsor of the bill, pointed to an urgency in addressing large-scale residential marijuana grows, which some argue invites organized crime into neighborhoods. There have been reports of organized large-scale grows in Colorado homes, in which the grows are legal, but the product is diverted and sold across state lines.
Supporters of limiting the size of grows pointed to dangers with electrical systems, mold and noxious smells.
"These problems degrade the property values of entire neighborhoods and pose enormous dangers to residents, neighbors, law enforcement and first-responders ... " Wist said. "Our duty to protect public safety requires that we act."
The bipartisan plant limit legislation was co-sponsored by House Democratic Leader KC Becker of Boulder. The bill was spearheaded by Gov. John Hickenlooper's office.
"You'll hear today that these bills are an attempt to attack patients and caregivers. That simply is not the case," said Mark Bolton, the governor's senior deputy legal counsel. "We have no interest in blaming legitimate patients and legitimate caregivers. I think it's unfortunate that they operate under the same laws that are being exploited by criminal organizations."
Patients, caregivers and some lawmakers wondered why the bill was coming soon after the legislature required caregivers to register with the state, a mandate that started in January. The registration allows law enforcement to know whether a grower is growing for legitimate patients, though it does not require patients themselves to register.
"I'm not understanding why law enforcement, with the sophisticated tools that you have at your disposal, how you can't tell the difference between a caregiver grow and a cartel grow?" asked Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver.
Her comment caused an eruption of applause from the dozens of marijuana activists in attendance, before the chairman of the committee reminded the audience to keep quiet.
House Bill 1220 would preserve local control by allowing jurisdictions to have a different limit than 12 plants, or whatever number the legislature lands on. The bill earned the support of the Colorado Municipal League.
Colorado law allows individuals to grow up to 99 plants if their doctor determines that the patient has a medical necessity for more than six plants. A caregiver can grow medical marijuana for each of the patients they serve. These provisions, however, have led to confusion for law enforcement.
"This prolific perversion of amendments 20 and 64 are what's causing the problems, and I do believe we are taunting the federal government to come into the state of Colorado," said Chief John Jackson, with the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police.
State officials are discussing a crackdown as the White House has signaled "greater enforcement" in states that have legalized marijuana, though the exact nature of the potential federal enforcement remains vague.
Colorado is more generous than other states that allow home grows. California, for example, limits home grows to six plants.
"The world uses Colorado as its example for a well-regulated marijuana system ..." said Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, chairman of the committee. "This is one of the last pieces as we've gone on this journey together that we need to address in order to assure that we keep that image positive."
Det. Adam Hughes, with Colorado Springs police's Metro Vice, Narcotics and Intelligence Unit, said his department has received over 378 anonymous tips regarding marijuana grows in Colorado Springs and El Paso County. He said home grows have resulted in increased crime, including home invasions and even homicide.
But patients - some who are children - spoke of the miraculous effects medical marijuana has had for them. They said any illegal diversion is because market demand is not being met, pointing out that not all communities allow for cannabis licensing. Critics of the bill said lawmakers should be doing more to expand access to marijuana.
"It hasn't been a year since the last caregiver bill passed, and this bill was quickly snuck in without giving the time to obtain proper input from all stakeholders, most importantly, voters," said Larisa Bolivar, executive director of the Cannabis Consumers Coalition.
"This is absolutely why the general public is losing faith in elected officials - sending a message to voters that you would rather trample constitutional rights using a straw man argument rather than fully leading on the issue. The real issue is that cannabis is not legal across the nation."