The Drug Enforcement Administration is warning that marijuana grow houses in Colorado may be "the new meth houses."
A June report by the DEA's Denver division warns of potential dangers and annoyances posed by large-scale marijuana growing operations hidden in residential neighborhoods. These operations can be a nuisance to neighbors, prompting complaints about "strong odors, excessive noise from industrial air-conditioning units, blown electrical transformers, and heavy vehicle traffic," according to the DEA.
Beyond that, a big indoor marijuana operation requires lots of high-powered lighting, water and ventilation. People making these modifications in a haphazard or amateurish way risk doing serious damage to their homes.
Unlicensed residential operations are becoming a bigger problem, the DEA says, because of loopholes in Colorado's marijuana laws. Under the recreational marijuana measure passed by the state's voters in 2012, individuals are allowed to grow up to six marijuana plants at home. But, according to the DEA, a provision in the law allows people to "assist" others in their grows — essentially giving growers cover to produce a near-unlimited amount of plants and claim that they belong to other individuals.
There's also a provision in Colorado's medical marijuana law that allows so-called caregivers to grow up to 99 plants on behalf patients that they assist. According to the Colorado Department of Health, there are fewer than 2,000 people in the state authorized to grow between 50 and 99 plants.
The DEA report says that under the cover of these laws, unscrupulous growers can produce large quantities of marijuana to be shipped and sold out of state at high prices. But the report doesn't quantify how much weed is actually being shipped beyond Colorado's borders. Nationwide, marijuana smuggling offenses have been falling in the era of legal weed.
The report says that "since 2014, there has been a noticeable increase in organized networks of sophisticated residential grows in Colorado that are orchestrated and operated by drug trafficking organizations." The report says there are currently "hundreds" of these operations in Colorado.
These operations "harm communities, including residents, first responders, service providers, and the environment in multiple ways, from reduced quality of life, reduced property values, and physical harm from mold, fires, and even explosions," said DEA spokeswoman Barbara Carreno in an email. "When you add home-situated butane hash oil labs to the mix, residential marijuana grow and processing operations truly do have an impact on neighborhoods similar to that of home-based clandestine meth labs."
Marijuana advocates are skeptical of the DEA's claims.
In an email, Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said that "it may be argued that unregulated grow operations will become less prevalent under marijuana regulation, since cultivators of larger grows will be able to engage in legally regulated, commercial endeavors and because consumers will be able to legally purchase products at retail facilities."
In its report, the DEA paints a grim picture of Colorado's future: "The proliferation of large residential grows is taxing local police and fire departments, consuming power and water resources, and potentially affecting home values in communities throughout the state."
But NORML's Armentano says the DEA is employing "sensational and ineffective scare-tactics." He adds, "the DEA’s 'flat earth' position toward marijuana lacks credibility and is out of step with public and scientific consensus."