DENVER – There’s money to be made in legal weed. But you better have a strong stomach for risk.
That’s the message Colorado’s nascent pot industry is taking from federal marijuana raids in Colorado this week. Thursday’s raids underscored how state legalization doesn’t remove risk from an industry that violates federal drug law.
Agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency and Internal Revenue Service raided at least 10 locations in Colorado on Thursday. The raids included growing warehouses, a Denver dispensary and two homes. No one was arrested, but federal authorities say an investigation is ongoing.
People in Colorado’s marijuana industry were withholding judgment on the raids. But with retail recreational marijuana sales set to start in less than six weeks, uncertainty remains a constant presence.
“There’s no one who owns and operates a dispensary who doesn’t think every minute a police officer could walk through the door,” said Robert Kane, chief financial officer for two cannabis-related businesses in Colorado Springs. “Buying, selling and growing cannabis is in conflict with federal law. End of story. It’s a risk.”
It was unclear what investigators were looking for Thursday. One of the 10 “target subjects” listed in a search warrant, Juan Guardarrama, is serving a prison term in Florida for racketeering, fraud and money laundering related to jewel thefts.
Jeff Dorschner, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Denver, said the probable-cause documents that outline the reasons for the raids are sealed.
Colorado plans to allow recreational pot sales starting Jan. 1, but not all jurisdictions are participating or plan to be ready that day. Many of the state’s 500 or so medical pot shops are planning full or partial conversion to the recreational market, open to all adults over 21.
Colorado voters signed off on the recreational pot business last year in a ballot measure. The measure flouts federal drug law, but the U.S. Department of Justice said in an August memo that it would largely ignore states that violate marijuana law – as long as the states keep the drug away from children, other states, criminal cartels and federal property.
Dorschner has said the raid targets are suspected of violating that guidance. He wouldn’t elaborate.
Kane and others in Colorado’s pot industry say it’s too soon to say what effect the raids will have on business. If the targeted businesses were breaking the law or evading taxes, the raids could actually boost investor confidence, Kane said. But the raids also sent a stark reminder that marijuana is still illegal. Agents smashed a window at a Denver dispensary and wore surgical masks while carting out documents.
“There’s never assurance that anyone in this industry is safe,” said Jason Warf, a lobbyist for dozens of dispensaries and head of the Colorado Springs Medical Cannabis Council.
Warf and others said the raids used unsubtle military-style tactics that remind everyone the business isn’t for the faint of heart.
“We see this again and again, raids where they smash windows, take anything of value, and nine times out of 10 there’s never any charges that follow,” Warf said.
“These raids were done during business hours in full daylight. Why do they bust windows when they could just walk through the door?”
Kane said pot businesses that break state regulations aren’t going to be treated like other lawbreakers.
“They just negotiated $13 billion from JPMorgan and they didn’t break one window,” Kane said, referring to a settlement with U.S. officials over bad mortgages. “But you still see this kind of approach to this industry, which is legal here.”