After more than three years of legal recreational marijuana in the state of Colorado, and in an effort to obstruct illegal marijuana trafficking, both the Colorado House and the Colorado Senate have approved new legislation that lowers the legal limit for residential marijuana growers from 99 plants to 12 plants per household. Medical marijuana patients and their caregivers can ask the state for an exemption that will allow them to grow up to 24 plants.

The legislation substantially reduces the ability of Coloradans to grow marijuana at their private residences. Law enforcement authorities say that large-scale pot distributors and international crime organizations are taking advantage of the current 99-plant limit. The legislation is part of a wider effort this year by Governor John Hickenlooper to enhance law enforcement in the “gray market,” where cannabis is cultivated legally but is distributed and sold illegally.

Several rural regions of Colorado have been sites where large-scale cannabis cultivation operations have grown with virtually no oversight. Some Colorado sheriffs and police departments have hesitated to take action because of a lack of precision in the language of the state’s marijuana regulations, and the neighbors of some of the cultivating operations have said those operations are growing unchecked. The new legislation should provide the state’s law enforcement officers with the tools they have needed to keep marijuana growers in compliance with the law.

WHY DO SOME BELIEVE THE NEW LEGISLATION IS IMPORTANT?

Supporters of the new legislation believe that the reduction of the residential growing cap to 12 plants will help the police deter black market growers and protect residential neighborhoods with children. Police Chief John Jackson of Greenwood Village, who heads up the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, said in support of the legislation, “The current limit of 99 plants is a massive loophole in our state law that attracts criminal elements from across our nation in search of a quick buck.” Chief Jackson added, “Police deserve to know where these growing operations are as they masquerade themselves into these family neighborhoods.”

Violent crime has dropped in Colorado since marijuana became legal here, but recent sting operations conducted by Colorado law enforcement agencies found that some residential pot growers move their marijuana across state lines – where the profits may be far more lucrative. Supporters argue that the new legislation – House Bill 1220 – will reduce the ability of these operations to continue their criminal activity.

Colorado House Majority Leader K.C. Becker told the Colorado Statesman, “Stopping diversion to the black or gray market is a significant benefit of the bill. We hope the bill can stop cartels, or really anyone who thinks they have an opportunity to discreetly grow in homes in Colorado.” Unanimous support for the bill in both the Colorado House and the Colorado Senate came after police associations, local governments, patient groups, and the governor’s office agreed to a compromise.

Proponents of the legislation point to another benefit of House Bill 1220. As the Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions has threatened to crack down on states where marijuana is legal, HB 1220 helps Colorado legislators resist federal intervention by demonstrating that the state is actively and successfully regulating its cannabis industry without federal oversight.

WHAT WILL BE THE PENALTIES FOR VIOLATING THE 12-PLANT RULE?

Anyone convicted of violating the new law can be penalized with a $1,000 fine for a first offense. Subsequent offenses for 13 to 24 plants will be a misdemeanor offense, and subsequent offenses for more than 24 plants will be considered a felony. Anyone who is charged with violating HB 1220 – or any of this state’s other marijuana laws – should contact an experienced Denver criminal defense attorney. By the time you read this, Governor Hickenlooper will most likely have signed HB 1220 into law. It will take effect beginning in 2018.

In a related development, Governor Hickenlooper is one of four governors who recently appealed to the Trump Administration to cooperate with the states that have legalized marijuana for recreational purposes. White House spokesperson Sean Spicer told reporters they can expect “greater enforcement” of federal marijuana laws by the Trump Administration, although it is unclear precisely what greater enforcement might mean.

Along with the governors of Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, Governor Hickenlooper addressed a public letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. The letter insists that marijuana legalization has expanded the economies of the four states and that a federal pot “crackdown” in 2017 “would divert existing marijuana product into the black market.”

In Colorado alone, pot retailers, growers, product manufacturers, and packagers have created thousands of jobs. In 2015, they generated an extra $135 million for the state of Colorado – resources that support law enforcement and drug education programs.

SHOULD POT USERS STILL WORRY ABOUT BREAKING THE LAW?

In Colorado, if you are 21 years old, you can purchase and possess up to one ounce of marijuana. Only patients approved for medical cannabis use may possess more than an ounce at a time. Nevertheless, marijuana users still have some legal concerns that they cannot afford to overlook – such as the possibility of being prosecuted for driving under the influence of marijuana. A first conviction for driving under the influence in Colorado is punishable by up to a year in jail, a fine of up to $1,000, participation in court-ordered drug education classes, and up to 96 hours of community service.

Anyone who is charged with marijuana-DUI, with possessing more than an ounce of pot, or with selling marijuana to a minor will need the help of an experienced Denver criminal defense attorney. Legal marijuana is still in the “experimental” stage in Colorado, so specific marijuana laws and regulations are evolving and changing rapidly. Location is a factor as well, since the state gives local jurisdictions a great deal of discretion and authority to regulate legal marijuana in their own communities.

Has the “experiment” with recreational marijuana been a success so far for the state of Colorado? A billion-dollar-a-year industry has emerged since in this state since cannabis became legal. Certainly, a number of details and problems remain to be ironed out, but overall, most knowledgeable observers agree that so far, the state of Colorado’s experiment with legalizing marijuana has been a success.

By: Dan Murphy

Denver criminal defense lawyer Daniel M. Murphy provides clients in the Denver area with aggressive and sympathetic legal representation. He graduated from the University of Denver Law School in 1994 and worked as a public defender before starting his own practice in 1996. He has defended clients accused of the most difficult criminal and alcohol-related charges. He also serves as a Moot Court Judge for Denver-area law students who rely on his mentorship.