Colorado law conceals medical marijuana users

Scott Schwebke, Montrose Daily Press

MONTROSE - A Montrose County Sheriff's Office detective says he favors changing a state law that prohibits police from knowing ahead of time who is entitled to grow medical marijuana.

'It would be a tool to help us do our jobs better,' said MCSO Investigator Bill Smith. 'It could affect who is jailed, what property is taken (by police) and what marijuana is seized.'

Smith's comments follow last week's arrest by the MCSO of 53-year-old Michael Branson, who lives near Pea Green, on marijuana cultivation charges.

He has been released from the Montrose County Jail on $5,000 bond and is slated to make his first appearance Thursday in Montrose County Court.

Branson said he has a registration identification card from the state that allows him as a caregiver to grow pot for a 44-year-old Eckert area woman who has multiple sclerosis and is a registered medical marijuana patient.

Branson was arrested because MCSO personnel found 22 pot plants in a garden on his property, which is 16 more than allowed under the state's medical marijuana statute. Branson said he was growing more plants than allowed by law because he is attempting to become a caregiver for another individual and a registered medical marijuana patient himself.

Smith said he could not comment on whether Branson is registered with the state to grow medical marijuana because of federal laws prohibiting the disclosure of medical and patient information.

However, he said generally speaking it would be helpful if the state made police aware of individuals allowed to grow medical marijuana so as not to cause them undue problems from law enforcement.

'It's not our intention to harass anyone,' he said.

Caregivers and patients could post their medical marijuana identification cards in plain sight at their residence so it could be easily viewed by law enforcement, Smith said.

They could also voluntarily bring their cards to law enforcement agencies so police would know they are registered, he added.

State law prohibits police from receiving information in advance regarding who is listed on the medical marijuana registry.

However, police can verify with the state if an individual is on the registry provided the person presents them with an identification card.

Montrose County has six people on the registry, Delta County has 13 people and Ouray County has less than three, said Debra Tuenge, administrator of the state's Medical Marijuana Registry program.

There are 440 people in Colorado who have active registrations for the use of medical marijuana.

To join the registry, a patient must obtain certification from a licensed Colorado physician that they have been diagnosed with a debilitating condition that may be alleviated by marijuana.

Tuenge added she understands why some law officers are frustrated by their inability to determine ahead of time who is on the registry.

'They would all like to know before they go to the door (of an individual suspected of growing marijuana),' she said.

The confidentiality provision in the state's medical marijuana law puts police in a position of potentially arresting someone who might legally be entitled to grow and possess pot, said Assistant District Attorney Dan Hotsenpiller. Law officers also need to be able to quickly verify with the state if an individual is on the medical marijuana registry, he added

'We need to provide officers with the information they need so that they don't violate someone's rights,' Hotsenpiller said.

Contact Scott Schwebke via e-mail at [email protected].