In Colorado’s legalization, It’s Still The Wild West For Home Grown Marijuana

In Colorado, It's Still The Wild West For Home-Grown Marijuana
credit: KUNC

Neighborly disputes are nothing new. There’s the dog next door that poops on your lawn. The house that throws loud backyard parties. The guy down the block who always plows through the stop sign.

But in Colorado, the introduction of legal, home-grown marijuana has elevated tension among neighbors to a whole new level.

Because of gaps in the state constitutional amendments that legalized cultivation of the drug for recreational and medical purposes — and in the ensuing rules that sought to regulate it further — some rural pockets in Colorado are seeing large-scale cooperative marijuana grow operations sprout up with little oversight.

“Out of sight, out of mind”

To get a good sense of this tension, head up to Rist Canyon, a series of quiet neighborhoods 45 minutes into the foothills west of Fort Collins.

It’s the type of place people move to to get away from the hustle of the Front Range. Modestly-sized homes and getaway cabins are strung along dirt and gravel roads, nearly all nestled among burned pine trees, relics of the 2012 High Park Fire, which claimed dozens of homes in the canyon and torched thousands of trees.

Since 2014, when Colorado’s legal, recreational marijuana sales began, Rist Canyon residents say they’ve seen the arrival of a handful of new neighbors. These newcomers buy a plot of land, and rather than build a house and move in, they put up greenhouses or start planting marijuana right in the ground.

Colorado’s statewide limits on home cultivation of medical and non-medical marijuana are based on the number of plants per individual — not per property. While some local jurisdictions have implemented limits, some haven’t.

That means growers can establish a cooperative grow operation, where multiple growers use the same land to pool resources and potentially grow hundreds of plants. To intervene, law enforcement would need to prove the marijuana is being diverted into the black market, and sheriffs say they don’t have the resources to stake out a marijuana grow to find out.

On one dusty patch of land in Rist Canyon’s Davis Ranch neighborhood, a cluster of large, homemade wooden rings, each capable of holding more than a dozen plants, are strewn out on the ground. There’s a metal machine shed and a camper van. Last summer, the land’s neighbor — he’d only agree to being identified by his middle name, Anthony — says more than a hundred marijuana plants were growing here.

“He has no power, he has no water. So to irrigate this marijuana they had to haul water on our roads and tear the s— out of our roads,” Anthony says.

Loopholes in the law

Larimer County officials are well aware of the activity and tension in Rist Canyon. An organized group of residents have brought their concerns in front of the county’s commissioners. You can also feel the frustration in a series of emails sent to commissioners about the grows.

What differentiates a cooperative cultivation from a commercial grow operation is its government oversight. Unlike a commercial grow site, cooperative grows aren’t often subject to zoning setbacks, moving them further from schools and drug addiction treatment centers. And they’ve become a big headache for local governments across Colorado.

“Because we don’t regulate them from a land use perspective there’s no kind of permitting required,” says Michael Whitley, a Larimer County land use planner who oversees code for marijuana grows.

“There’s no specific regulation that says you can’t do it that way — that you can’t get multiple caregivers together to all cultivate on the same property.”

When marijuana was first legalized in Colorado, Whitley says lawmakers and local officials spent much of their time creating and crafting a regulatory scheme for commercial sales of retail marijuana, and paid little attention to Amendments 64 and 20’s generous allowances for home-grown plants: six plants per individual, 21 years of age and older, and up to 99 plants for each medical marijuana caregiver.

In Larimer County, where Rist Canyon is located, there’s no plant limits for a single property, meaning a grower can take care of hundreds of plants, along as each of them has an owner to claim them.

New statewide plant limits

Republican Rep. Cole Wist of Centennial says new limits would help law enforcement – and prevent diversion to the black market.

“Our liberal laws regarding plant count are being abused by folks that are seeking to ship marijuana outside the state,” Wist says.

House Bill 1220 — now on its way to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s desk — would limit all plants grown at a residence to 12, creating a per property plant limit for the entire state. Caregivers or people on the medical marijuana registry could grow double that.

The limits aren’t just about potential black market diversion. Lawmakers are also concerned about public health risks such as excessive power and electrical use that can pose a fire hazard, noxious smells, mold and water damage from unregulated grow sites.

“We had over 100 witnesses that came and testified on [the bill establishing new limits]. And I heard them loud and clear that they don’t want us to criminalize medical treatment and I completely agree with that,” Wist says.