Caregivers' ability to grow hundreds of marijuana plants - which some claim is supplying the black market in Colorado and outside the state - is about to be uprooted.
Beginning Jan. 1, the maximum number of plants marijuana caregivers can grow will drop from 495 to 99 - one of the most sweeping changes to the caregivers program since Colorado voters approved medical marijuana in 2000.
The move has been hailed by law enforcement officials as a necessary step to combat what they say are illegal grows masquerading as legitimate caregiver operations, which they fear are helping supply the black market.
The El Paso County Sheriff's Office, for example, plans to ramp up searches of suspected marijuana grows in 2017.
In theory, they shouldn't find much, because a 12-plant limit already exists on residentially zoned properties.
But deputies suspect people across the county's eastern plains are breaking both laws, said Jeff Schulz, the Sheriff's Office's point man for rural marijuana enforcement.
As a result, signs will be posted throughout the county over the next month warning residents of the new limit on marijuana plants.
"We're looking for the people who don't have any of the caregiver licenses, who don't have the patient count, who don't have anything except they're just growing marijuana to sell to the kid down the street, or make money illegally," the deputy said.
But marijuana advocates say the new law puts patients - often epileptic or cancer-stricken children - at risk of losing a vital supply line for their much-needed medication. Many fear caregivers will either ration their harvest or drop some patients to ensure others get all the medicine they need.
They have pilloried the new law as an attempt by lawmakers to push more people to use medical marijuana dispensaries. Such businesses aren't an option for many patients, advocates say, because they require certain strains that often aren't commercially available on a consistent basis.
"It's like they're systematically taking away every avenue I have to be able to get care for my son," said Jennie Stormes, whose 17-year-old son uses marijuana oil cultivated from 48 plants.
Restrictions on the number of plants caregivers can grow have been on the rise.
Already, at least 10 other counties cap plant counts below the new state law. Usually, such ordinances limit grows to 12 to 18 plants per household, said Eric Bergman, Colorado Counties Inc.'s policy director.
Some cities - Colorado Springs among them - also recently passed similar measures.
The crackdown in El Paso County will ramp up in February, Schulz said.
He has a list of more than 40 locations across the county targeted for compliance checks. It stems from complaints from neighbors who say the properties reek of weed. Some people have complained of lower water pressure inside homes bordering those properties, suggesting unusually high water use typical of a marijuana grow, he said.
Schulz has earmarked a few properties based simply on what he has seen during routine patrols along county roads. A greenhouse with fast-melting snow on top, he said, is cause for inspection.
He's already visited at least a few of those houses, but homeowners rebuffed him when he asked to search without a warrant.
"The ones I'm concerned about, or we're looking at, are the ones who won't even let us in to take a look around," Schulz said. "Which is their right - that's obviously their Fourth Amendment right to illegal search and seizure - and I get that.
"But we have no way of knowing exactly what they're doing."
He said he's skeptical of the claim that medical marijuana patients need more than 99 plants, saying that grows produce enough marijuana to fill thousands upon thousands of joints.
"Absolutely impossible for somebody to smoke that much marijuana," Schulz said.
Jennie Stormes, though, dismissed the suggestion her son's 48-plant count is too high.
Her son, Jackson, requires several different strains of marijuana to create oils that properly control debilitating epileptic seizures caused by Dravet syndrome, a rare genetic disorder.
Such high plant counts ensure he can diversify his medicine, she said.
Complicating matters is how only half of those plants can bloom at a time, while the other half grow.
"I should be able to grow what he needs," Stormes said.
Already, she said medical marijuana patients face hurdles in getting the medication they need - a problem that will only grow worse once the new law takes effect.
Stormes, who lives just outside Colorado Springs' eastern city limits, has been forced to contract with a caregiver elsewhere in the state, due to this county's 12-plant limit.
"You can't just change the rules on patients and expect them to survive," Stormes said. "What are those patients going to do?"