Skip to main content

Feature: Federal Medical Marijuana Raids in Colorado -- Is the Denver DEA Going Rogue?

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #621)
Politics & Advocacy

Colorado's burgeoning medical marijuana community is up in arms after a series of DEA raids in recent weeks. First, DEA agents hit medical marijuana laboratories in Denver and Colorado Springs that tested for THC levels and contaminants such as mold. Then, late last week, DEA agents raided and arrested Highland Park medical marijuana grower Chris Bartkowicz after he appeared in local media talking about his grow operation.

Colorado medical marijuana certificate (courtesy
While no charges have been filed against the lab operators, Colorado US Attorney David Gaoutte announced Tuesday that he would prosecute Bartkowicz, who now faces up to 40 years in federal prison for his efforts. The pattern is similar to that seen previously in California, where DEA often raided dispensaries, but federal prosecutors only prosecuted some of those raided.

The DEA actions appear to fly in the face of Obama campaign promises to stop the raids. Those promises were, the medical marijuana community thought, kept when Attorney General Eric Holder issued a Department of Justice memorandum instructing federal officials to lay off medical marijuana in states where it is legal -- unless the provider is violating both state and federal law. That memo went out to all US Attorneys, as well as acting DEA administrator Michele Leonhart, who has since been nominated to be the permanent administrator of the agency.

The October Justice Department memo said the feds should not go after people in "clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana." The memo said nothing about "large grows" or testing labs not being included.

Denver DEA Special Agent in Charge (SAC) Jeffrey Sweetin at first sounded as if he had missed the memo. In an interview last Saturday with the Denver Post he threatened to go after the state's rapidly increasing number of medical marijuana dispensaries. "Technically, every dispensary in the state is in blatant violation of federal law," he said. "The time is coming when we go into a dispensary, we find out what their profit is, we seize the building and we arrest everybody. They're violating federal law; they're at risk of arrest and imprisonment."

In an interview with Denver's TV 9 News, Sweetin carried on in the same vein, saying that even though state law allows for medical marijuana, federal law does not. "We will continue to enforce the federal law. That's what we are paid to do," he said.

Sweetin said the Justice Department guidelines give him discretion. "Discretion is: I can't send my DEA agents out on 10-plant grows. I'm not interested in that, it's not what we do. We work criminal organizations that are enterprises generating funds by distributing illegal substances," Sweetin said.

By Tuesday, though, Sweetin was singing a slightly different tune in an interview with Westword. "We are not declaring war on dispensaries," he said -- though he added with a laugh, "If we were declaring war on dispensaries, they would not be hard to find. You can't swing a dead cat around here without hitting thirty of them."

Sweetin also took a pot shot at Denver medical marijuana attorney Robert Corry, who filed a complaint with the Department of Justice inspector general's office alleging waste, fraud, abuse, and misconduct against the department and the DEA. The complaint asks the inspector general to sanction Sweetin and the other agents involved.

People like Corry and others critical of the raids are doing people a disservice, Sweetin said. "I think the people who claim to represent marijuana growers in this state are trying to create this fear, and I think that's sad," he said without a trace of irony.

The question facing Colorado's medical marijuana community is whether Sweetin has gone off the reservation or whether the raids represent a shift in the Obama administration's approach to medical marijuana in the states where it is legal.

"It's hard to say whether it's a rogue law enforcement effort limited to Colorado or whether we have something to worry about in regards to not keeping the promise made by the Justice Department memo last October," said Kris Hermes, spokesman for the medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access. "It's worth noting that two days before the first lab raid that President Obama nominated Michele Leonhart to head DEA. She's already acting administrator, a holdover from the Bush administration, but it was alarming to activists and advocates to find out we were going to get more of the same. She was the deputy administrator under Karen Tandy when the DEA carried out more than 200 aggressive raids against the people of California," he said.

"It seems like a rogue office," said Brian Vicente, leader of the marijuana law reform group Sensible Colorado. "Sweetin is saying marijuana is not a medicine as if he were a doctor, and the US Attorney is following his lead to prosecute the providers. This is very concerning. Sweetin has long been an absolute enemy of marijuana, and now, an enemy of Colorado voters, who voted for medical marijuana."

"Hopefully, this is just an instance of rogue law enforcement, and Obama and Holder will rein it in, but we're not waiting to find out," Hermes said. "We are right now preparing an alert to members to write to the administration expressing their frustration with the DEA's apparent failure to comply with Justice Department policy."

Vicente and dozens of other Sensible Colorado members and medical marijuana patients spent part of Thursday protesting the raids in front of the building where President Obama happened to be making an appearance. "There were probably 75 of us protesting and handing out literature aimed at alerting Obama to these rogue actions and calling on him to tell these agents to quit going after our patients and providers," he said. "We handed out flyers to everyone in the 1,000-person line waiting to get into the event, and we got considerable press coverage."

The Colorado medical marijuana movement is also gearing up against the looming threat, said Vicente. "We're working with a number of local and national groups to establish a firm emergency response plan like they did in California," he said. "We're somewhat fearful that Colorado may become a new DEA focus, and we want to be an organized presence."

As for grower Bartkowicz, who now faces federal drug dealing charges, his case should be dealt with in the state courts, not the federal courts, said Vicente. "We're not sure if he was or wasn't in compliance with state law, but we think the only place where that question could be fairly litigated is state court. The federal courts don't even recognize medical marijuana and are thus unequipped to determine if someone is in compliance with state law. We are asking them to drop the federal charges and let the state courts sort it out."

"I've seen no evidence of a violation of state law," said Hermes. "If there is no violation of state law, defense attorneys should be able to go to federal court and point to the memo and say the Justice Department should comply. The spirit of the policy is to stay out of enforcement when people are complying with state law. By that token, no federal charges should have been filed."

The war over medical marijuana is far from over. But now, it looks like the new battlefield could be Colorado.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


ServingTheLoa (not verified)

Does this Sweetin guy actually swing dead cats around to help determine how to subvert the U.S. Constitution's 10th Amendment and state medical cannabis laws?

I've never heard this expression. Is it a DEA-thing?

Seriously though, if he does indeed swing dead cats around, does that mean he can say "fuck you" to Obama and Holder's memo? Is this a Voodoo thing, because I imagine Obama is into Voodoo, considering he is a Muslim and doesn't have a birth certificate proving he was born in the U.S. And I think he was actually born in Haiti. This could be the behind-the-scenes key to why Obama is letting the DEA "follow the Loa."

Obama was in Colorado yesterday, I think. Did he by any chance address the DEA's latest crimes against humanity?

Fri, 02/19/2010 - 3:56am Permalink
Anyone USA (not verified)

In reply to by ServingTheLoa (not verified)

Whoever you are....
I think that you need to do some reading. in fact Obama is not a Muslim and he does have a birth certificate. And I think you put it perfectly by saying "I imagine"...because thats all that your claims are...imagination!

Fri, 02/19/2010 - 3:54pm Permalink
ALAN WILLIAMS (not verified)

In reply to by ServingTheLoa (not verified)

first thing first if President Obama didnt have a birth certificate proving he was born in America or abroad he wouldnt be eligible to be President. Even if he is Muslim he wouldnt practice Voodoo. They praise the same GOD that we do. The difference is that Muslims dont believe that Jesus was Gods son they follow the last proft Muhammad. Which in our faith of Chritianity we believe in Jesus as being Gods son and not just a profit..So get your facts straight about the simple stuff first. And yes the DEA can raid any state that they want under federal law which is a shame, the memo said lay off medical marijuana not drop it all together they have to tighten the chain everyonce in awhile. I was a "stoner" before i started working for the state and i support medical marijuana but also understand that federal law overrides any state law so man up and take what you get. when you play with fire your bound to get burnt

I support our troops and support America if you dont like they way things are always remember you are free to leave..

Sun, 02/21/2010 - 8:43pm Permalink
Coop (not verified)

In reply to by ALAN WILLIAMS (not verified)

See my above comment...
You guys need to get a sense of humor,
or at least learn to recognize good satire.

Mon, 02/22/2010 - 10:36am Permalink
mlang52 (not verified)

In reply to by ALAN WILLIAMS (not verified)

I support our troops too. My daughter is just getting out of the Air Force.

Thing is, I do not support the unneeded religious wars we are fighting in the middle east. And, there actually might be a lot of military personnel that feel the same way! Why should one young person, from this country, die for these wars? Is it that we want vengeance? Or, is it that we are so scared and paranoid that a handful of terrorists might harm us. I thought the IRS has a monopoly on that!

Maybe they are mad at us because we were trying to force our brand of "freedom" down their throats, in the middle east! When we figure out what the motive, behind their terrorism is, then maybe we can fix the problem!? Until then, maybe your paranoia is justified.

And as far as the birth certificate goes, the state of California made a spelling mistake on my original birth certificate, 57 years ago! I almost was refused a driver's license because of it! That certificate is nothing like the crap that was presented as Mr Obama's birth certificate. That thing does not even look like an official birth certificate! You can rest assured, had I tried to use something like his certificate, I would have been laughed at and refused a license. But, I guess rank does have its privileges!

And you also seem to misunderstand the Bill of Rights and how it protects us from the over-powering tyranny of the federal government. That is why we have a Constitution. It is to prevent tyranny, like that of the British government. The Federal law does not trump state law, according to the information supplied by the tenth amendment. It can be nullified!

You are also free to leave, too! (Now was that not just the dumbest statement?!) I guess the title you put on your letter fits you well! Name calling is so childish!

Mon, 02/22/2010 - 11:59am Permalink
Anonymous1 (not verified)

In reply to by ALAN WILLIAMS (not verified)

"I support our troops and support America if you dont like they way things are always remember you are free to leave.."

or change the government. I believe that is in the declaration of independence not leaving the country but changing the government!

Tue, 02/23/2010 - 4:51pm Permalink
Rockbilly (not verified)

In reply to by ALAN WILLIAMS (not verified)

So let me get this straight, if you don't like the fact that our govt. has gone waaaaay beyond it's intended position and authority and is currently in the process of turning us all into criminals of some sort that we should just lie down and take it, or get the hell out of the country?

I submit to you my friend that this is the attitude that has gotten us where we are today, where our govt. thinks it has the right to pretty much do whatever the hell it wants and damn the torpedoes.

give your head a shake as our cousins to the north would say.

Fri, 04/23/2010 - 2:04am Permalink
Bill Combs (not verified)

So, here we are, trillions of dollars in debt, and still wastefully spending untold millions to push the federal marijuana agenda down the throats of states and citizens? Seems we would have better areas in which to spend our hard-earned tax dollars.

There are a handful of states (Wyoming the latest) that have started passing bills telling the federal government that guns made and used within the state are not subject to federal jurisdiction. Maybe the medical marijuana states need to incorporate such an approach in their laws regarding in-state growing and use of medical marijuana. The Wyoming bill would even provide for criminal penalties against any federal or state law enforcement agent who acts contrary to the state law. Obviously, rhetoric from the current administration is proving to ring hollow.

Fri, 02/19/2010 - 2:20pm Permalink
Lone Wolf 54 (not verified)

With the DEA still conducting fascist persecutions on the public, it is very clear that the global police state agenda accelerated by George Bush has been continued by President Obama. Street protests, economic warfare, and new candidates in office may be the way to go.

Fri, 02/19/2010 - 2:21pm Permalink
King pothead (not verified)

In reply to by Lone Wolf 54 (not verified)

Why wouldn't Obama sell people out on this issue? He's thrown the progressives who elected him under the bus on every other issue. I just don't understand why we can't get massive protests going in this country. It's obvious the country is in deep trouble and it's time to let Obama and those parasitic politicians know how angry we are on numerous issues. If the small minority that is those nutjob tea-baggers can protest, imagine what a stink the rest of us could make.

It is time for the persecution and prosecution of anyone smoking, growing or selling marijuana to end. This lunacy shouldn't happen in the so-called "best country on earth."

Fri, 02/19/2010 - 4:31pm Permalink
sparrow (not verified)

In reply to by King pothead (not verified)

I believe that the reason it is so difficult to get the mmj community up and protesting is that a lot of them are afraid. They are afraid to speak up for their rights because the DEA has them terrorized. Afraid they will loose there businesses, there medicine, and get tossed in jail. Or better yet their caregivers or patients end up in jail. The people are here, but fear is in the air.

Tue, 03/02/2010 - 10:30pm Permalink
monte lasagna (not verified)

those dea folks are violently gaga.

getting cannabis rescheduled, a simple process, is the silver bullet.


Fri, 02/19/2010 - 3:59pm Permalink
Ed McCann (not verified)

In reply to by monte lasagna (not verified)

It is not a simple thing to have cannabis rescheduled. There have been numerous attempts that have lasted decades. The latest attempt is the 2002 Petition to Reschedule Cannabis ( Read it and learn about the process of rescheduling.

Tue, 02/23/2010 - 7:08pm Permalink
Mitchell (not verified)

I'm a FULL supporter of MMJ, but this guy was NOT following state law. He had almost four times the number of plants he is constitutionally authorized to have.

Fri, 02/19/2010 - 5:42pm Permalink
FollowTheLoa (not verified)

Just for the record, I was just joshing about Obama, Muslim, Birth Certificate, and Voodoo.

But I wouldn't be surprised if Rush L. is trying to spread this silliness right now; so I'd better be more careful. It's amazing what some people believe, despite the hard facts (obama is christian with a birth certificate, but the no birth certificate/Muslim crap is still going on!!)

Fri, 02/19/2010 - 6:17pm Permalink
David S. Schne… (not verified)

I have resided in metro Denver for most of my56 years. Denver has always been known as a cowtown, what with it's wild west mentality and frontier justice.

Fri, 02/19/2010 - 6:28pm Permalink
Jean Boyd (not verified)

One law says you can and the other says you cannot. The laws mean nothing. However if you have any sense of ethics, you know that a person does not deserve to be locked away for growing marijuana. We are trying to make sense of something that does not make sense. These chaotic laws seem to unleash the worst lunatics ie: Sweetin for instance. He states that he can't send HIS D.E.A. out on ten plant grows. His DEA. Hmmmm. This guy is all about himself. He needs to be fired. I guess our "acting" DEA administrator Michelle approves of this creep. We need an entirely new neutral administrator and extreme agents like Sweetin put out to pasture. They obviously do not represent the people's will.

Fri, 02/19/2010 - 8:16pm Permalink
Moonrider (not verified)

And this is something everyone needs to know:
"We are grateful to the Washington Post, The New York Times, Time Magazine and other great publications whose directors have attended our meetings and respected their promises of discretion for almost forty years. It would have been impossible for us to develop our plan for the world if we had been subjected to the lights of publicity during those years. But, the world is now more sophisticated and prepared to march towards a world government. The supranational sovereignty of an intellectual elite and world bankers is surely preferable to the national auto-determination practiced in past centuries."
David Rockefeller Baden-Baden, Germany 1991

So why is it 19 years passed before we were able to see this quote? And people say there is no such thing as a conspiracy. Riiight!

I'm pro-choice on EVERYTHING!

Sat, 02/20/2010 - 3:45pm Permalink
David S. Schne… (not verified)

In reply to by Moonrider (not verified)

So you believe there is conspiracy,eh? You wouldn't want the fredo-marxist Psychiatrist to diagnose you as "antisocial" would you...?

It's all in the knowing that the antisocial personality is a Nazi concept, friends and neighbors.

Sat, 02/20/2010 - 8:26pm Permalink
Mr. Elagante (not verified)

A well kept secret for anyone running into similar problems. A person busted by federal government employee(s) can sue, in civil court, the arresting agent and by law the employer (fed's) can not assist monetarily, offer or intervene and the agent is rendered legally alone to handle the lawsuit. All costs of the case including the agent’s attorney(s) are paid by the agent(s) being sued. At no time can the agent request assistance from the agency he works for neither for support or evidence related to the civil lawsuit and doing so would be a violation of federal regulations.

Sun, 02/21/2010 - 12:15pm Permalink
A Child Of Knowledge (not verified)

First off, if our government would make drugs perfectly legal, noone would have a issue with the raids and all the bust. People wouldn't have to be stealing and shooting others for the product(s) or the chemicals(and other things) to make the drugs. The more our government trys to keep people from getting to what they are currently addicted to, the more they are gonna try to get it. It's like telling someone who is addicted to caffine, that they can't have it. I know that it's nothing like compared to that, but it's just like saying someone who is depended on meth to function normally throughout a day can't have it anymore. The government spends more money on the "Drug War" than they do to catch murders and rapist. It's not always the drugs that kill the people, it's people killing people.

- A Child Of Knowledge

Sun, 02/21/2010 - 6:40pm Permalink
Freedom Fight 420 (not verified)

Sweetin and all his fed cronies can try and try and try but the fact all starts from a single seed :) You can't stop people from using something that's been in demand for the past few thousand years. You can't stop the determination of millions. You may have been able to deceive enough of the American public for a good while but now those who know the truth have grown in numbers...the power shift is coming...

Tue, 06/08/2010 - 3:52pm Permalink

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.