Vallario stoked about pot bust

August 12, 2004

Greg Massé, Glenwood Springs Post Independents

Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario on Thursday applauded his drug team's Aug. 2 arrest of a Rifle family that grows medical marijuana. The undercover drug team netted four arrests that day, but the people who were arrested say they are allowed by state law to grow pot for medical reasons.

Despite those objections, Vallario, who serves as vice chairman of the TRIDENT Board, commended the team.

'This was done the right way. Somebody provided the information for us, and we made the arrest. I thought it was a perfect case to come back on,' Vallario said.

TRIDENT first received a report that there was a marijuana growing operation from a citizen's report. The team then conducted 24-hour surveillance on the apartment for 21Ú2 days before making the bust outside of the apartment.

The marijuana bust was the first since TRIDENT temporarily suspended its operations in February and it came less than a week after 9th Judicial District Attorney Mac Myers penned a statement in which he called TRIDENT 'the sloppiest, most poorly managed law enforcement agency I have seen in my 25 years working in the criminal justice system.'

According to the arrest affidavit, Gene Brownlee, 34, and his wife Jennifer Ryan, 21, both told police they were growing the marijuana legally. The couple, along with Justin Brownlee and Drew Gillespie, both 19, all were arrested outside of 545 Park Ave. in Rifle.

'Mr. Brownlee told us that he believed that they were permitted to grow three marijuana plants 'in flower' and three marijuana plants 'not in flower,' per person with a permit,' the affidavit, written by TRIDENT officer Anthony Kornasiewicz said. 'When we pointed out that there were many more plants than that growing in his apartment, he told us that the law allowed him to grow 'as many as necessary.''

Brownlee told officers he is on the registry because he has terminal cancer.

Vallario said that once TRIDENT officers were told the family was on the registry, his team checked on the legitimacy of the couple's claim that they were growing the pot legally.

The officers found out that while some of the pot might have been legal, there were many more plants than the state's medical marijuana program allows.

'The TRIDENT guys are very familiar with that law because they don't want to violate people's rights,' Vallario said.

According to state law, those allowed to possess medical marijuana can have a total of six pot plants, three of which can be mature. Aside from the plants, medical marijuana registrants can possess up to two useable ounces of pot.

In all, there were 131 plants in the apartment, according to TRIDENT.

Ryan told police she was a registered caregiver for five patients who are allowed to use medical marijuana, but even with that many patients, she was still over the state threshold, Vallario said.

'We added it up and there were too many plants,' Vallario said.

Brownlee was once on the medical marijuana registry, but he has since been 'removed or suspended' from it, Vallario said.

'We verified it. The guys took the time to call the medical marijuana registry,' Vallario said.

In addition to the high number of plants and Brownlee's apparent suspension from the medical marijuana registry, two people arrested that day told police that some of the pot was sold and traded.

According to the affidavit, Brownlee's nephew, Justin Brownlee, told police he 'assisted in the selling of marijuana grown by Gene and Jennifer in the past, and that he has obtained marijuana from them for his own use.'

Gillespie said he also helped sell Ryan and Brownlee's pot and said 'he has also been paid a part of his wages in marijuana on several occasions by them when they were short of money,' the affidavit said. Gillespie works for Brownlee.

Both Gene Brownlee and Ryan told police they never sold their marijuana to anyone without a permit.

Contrary to Brownlee's statements that there were 20 to 30 officers at the house during the raid, there were only about 10, Vallario said.

'There were considerably less than 20 or 30,' he said.

The claim has fueled public speculation that TRIDENT is an overly aggressive, military-styled organization, a sentiment that Vallario regrets.

'I would hope, especially in Garfield County where we've received so much support, that people understand there's a reason for the helmets and the vests,' he said. 'I guess what concerns me is that people might be misled as to what TRIDENT does by what these people say publicly.'

Vallario said that while he'll abide by the law that allows marijuana to be used for medical purposes - Amendment 20 of the Colorado Constitution - that doesn't mean he likes it.

'I don't agree with it. I'm not a supporter,' he said.

In fact, Vallario said he thinks possession of marijuana should be a felony.

'I don't consider it medicine,' he said. 'Medically, they haven't convinced me personally that you have to smoke marijuana to solve things. I think there should be another way. I think there are people who abuse that for their own personal drug usage.'

Vallario also explained why he called the medical marijuana law 'stupid' in a story in another newspaper.

'The point I was getting at is there's no backside to this,' he said. 'They're allowing people to possess it and grow it, but somebody had to get it illegally to begin with.'

According to the amendment, people with cancer, glaucoma, those who are HIV/AIDS positive, people with cachexia, severe pain, severe nausea, seizures - including those that are characteristic of epilepsy - or those with persistent muscle spasms - including those that are characteristic of multiple sclerosis - are eligible to become part of the medical marijuana program.

A patient diagnosed with a debilitating condition that may be alleviated by the medical use of marijuana can apply to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for a Medical Marijuana Registry identification card.

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