Eagle County sees growing trend | VailDaily.com

Eagle County sees growing trend

Sarah Mausolf
Vail, CO Colorado
Derek Franz / Daily file photo

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – In 2007, police discovered a man had been growing two pot plants in his Avon home and playing classical music to them.

That was the most ominous “growing operation” the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office busted that year.

In fact, it was the only growing operation police responded to that year.

Fast forward to this year, and the Sheriff’s Office has already investigated a dozen growing operations.

It seems more and more people in Eagle County are applying their green thumbs to growing medical marijuana. It’s legal in some cases, but police say plenty of people aren’t playing by the rules.

“We’re starting to see major quantities,” said an undercover sheriff’s office deputy who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s not just a guy with his few plants in his closet for his own use. We’ve had a couple in the past few years that have been in excess of 300 plants.”

Police are also noticing more people growing medical marijuana in their homes.

“There are inherent dangers with those,” the deputy said. “I’ve never been to a grow yet where they’ve done the electrical or the water up to code. A lot of the time there are multiple extension cords and water laying around. They’re fire hazards.”

Also, a relatively new state law allows only dispensaries to run commercial growing operations. Dispensaries are required to grow 70 percent of their pot. Any marijuana they don’t grow themselves has to come from another dispensary.

However, the undercover officer said the law isn’t discouraging illegal growers from attempting to supply dispensaries. With some dispensaries struggling to grow enough marijuana to meet their demand, he thinks Mexican drug traffickers and other criminals could spot an opportunity.

“Last month we arrested a gentleman in Gypsum on I-70 who had 40 pounds of marijuana in his car and the way it was packaged, we’re confident it was destined for a dispensary,” the deputy said.

In Eagle, police have been cracking down on illegal growing operations as well in recent months.

However, Chief Rodger McLaughlin said police are not going after the average patients who are simply growing a few plants. Colorado law allows patients with medical marijuana cards to grow six plants, while “caregivers” can grow as many as six plants each for five patients.

“They’re protected by the Constitution,” McLaughlin said. “They’re not on our radar screen.”

To get a sense of how many patients are growing marijuana off the “radar screen,” I stopped into High County Hydroponics gardening shop in Eagle.

Owner Cheri Stone said about 75 percent of her business involves people are looking to buy supplies for growing medical marijuana.

While a different garden shop in the area has posted a sign forbidding customers from talking about medical marijuana in the store, citing the federal laws that consider marijuana illegal, Stone hasn’t gone that route.

“I see no reason why I can’t legally discuss it, as long as it’s in legal parameters,” she said.

Although sustainable farming is the focus of her store, she’s fine with providing customers with supplies for their pot plants – unless she suspects they’re up to something illegal.

Just how many people in Eagle County are growing marijuana?

“I think a helluva lot more than you could imagine and you would be surprised who,” Stone said.

Most of this growing in basements, bedrooms and backyards is taking place under a veil of secrecy. Patients keep their plants under wraps for fear their reputations or security could be at stake.

With the growing trend taking root, towns are wrestling with new laws for how to govern it.

On Dec. 14, Eagle County commissioners plan to discuss the county’s medical marijuana laws. The county is considering a licensing program for medical marijuana businesses that will addresses commercial growers.

That same day, the Eagle town board plans to consider new rules for growing marijuana in residential neighborhoods. It would limit the number of people who can grow in a residential unit to one patient, or a caregiver servicing a single patient. It would also confine those grows to 150 square feet for a single family home or 100 square feet for a multi-family home.

In March, Eagle adopted a law limiting commercial growing operations to those run by approved dispensaries within the town of Eagle. So far, the only approved commercial growing operation belongs to the owner of the Sweet Leaf Pioneer dispensary on Chambers Avenue.

“We had a number of people interested in establishing growing operations within the town where the dispensaries were located upvalley,” town manager Willy Powell said. “We just didn’t want to become an agricultural center for the upvalley or anywhere else, for that matter.”

Staff Writer Sarah Mausolf can be reached at 970-748-2928 or smausolf@vaildaily.com.

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