Marijuana plants grow in full sun in Pueblo County on Sept. 3, 2016. Pueblo County is one of the few places in Colorado that allows for outdoor commercial cannabis cultivation. (Vince Chandler, Denver Post file)

Colorado House OKs efforts to crack down on illegal marijuana

In a bid to crack down on drug trafficking, the Colorado House on Monday voted to put new limits on home-grown marijuana that would dramatically reduce the number of plants people can legally grow in residential areas.

The bill would impose a blanket 16-plant per home limit — whether the pot’s grown for medical or recreational purposes.

That represents a significant reduction from the current cap, which goes as high as 99 plants for medical marijuana patients and caregivers — a limit that law enforcement officials say has been exploited by large-scale, international crime organizations.

“Colorado voters did not envision massive, commercial-grade home-grow operations in residential areas and those who maintain that this is in some way permitted by the State Constitution are flat out wrong,” Police Chief John Jackson of Greenwood Village said in a statement supporting the bill. “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.”

Licensed caregivers could still grow more than 16 plants under the bill, but they would have to grow the excess number in areas zoned for large-scale, commercial grows.

The measure — and a companion bill that the House gave a preliminary nod on Monday — is part of a broad effort this session by Gov. John Hickenlooper to step up the state’s enforcement of the gray market, in which marijuana is grown legally but sold illegally.

The new limits in House Bill 1220 were approved with bipartisan support Monday, 55-10, after a flurry of amendments — one of which relaxed the proposed cap from 12 to 16 plants.

It also would allow local governments to impose further restrictions by ordinance, something many already do. Denver, for instance, has a 12-plant limit.

The bill still needs Senate approval and the governor’s signature to become law.

Also on Monday, the House gave preliminary approval to a companion measure, House Bill 1221, which would create a $6 million-a-year grant program to help local law enforcement crack down on illegal grows. It will be paid for using unspent money in the state’s marijuana cash fund, which is funded by marijuana sales taxes.

The two measures come amid growing uncertainty over how the Trump administration will handle states like Colorado that have legalized a drug that the federal government still considers an illegal, Schedule 1 narcotic.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is an outspoken critic of legalizing marijuana, and Sean Spicer, a spokesman for the White House, has said to expect “greater enforcement” of federal marijuana laws under President Donald Trump. But it’s not yet clear what that will mean.

The hope among Colorado officials is that any efforts the state takes on its own to limit the spread of marijuana will help stave off any unwanted federal intervention.

With House Bill 1220, Colorado would bring itself closer in line with the 28 other states that have legalized medical marijuana. Today, Colorado is the only state that allows more than 16 plants in a caregiver or patient’s home.

“I can think of no quicker way to jeopardize Colorado’s billion-dollar industry than to allow our state to become a significant source of marijuana in other states where it isn’t legal,” said House Majority Leader KC Becker, D-Boulder, one of the bill’s sponsors.

While the bill passed with wide bipartisan support, many lawmakers expressed deep reservations over unintended consequences.

Marijuana patients have been flooding lawmakers with complaints that the bill would restrict their access to legal medicine, and force them to buy marijuana from more expensive commercial dispensaries. The first hearing on the measure lasted until almost midnight.

“We need to do something,” said Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Boulder, who voted no. “The question is are we casting too wide of a net?”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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