DENVER — Pot smoker Chris Bartkowicz thought he had hit pay dirt, bragging to a local television station he would make $400,000 off a basement medical marijuana operation in a well-heeled Denver suburb where neighbors had no idea what he was growing.
A day after KUSA-TV aired a tease about his story in February, the Drug Enforcement Administration paid a visit, seizing more than 200 plants and charging Bartkowicz with cultivating marijuana, a federal crime punishable by five to 40 years in prison and a $2 million fine.
The first-of-its-kind case since Colorado voters approved medical marijuana in 2000 has alarmed growers across Colorado, prompted a U.S. congressman to decry federal drug enforcement and put Denver's DEA chief on the defensive.
The case underscores the ongoing pressure points over the use of medical marijuana. Bartkowicz had state medical clearance to smoke pot and was a designated grower for other patients. But U.S. prosecutors say even if he was following state guidelines, the drug remains illegal under federal law, despite the Obama administration's decision to relax prosecution guidelines for medical marijuana last year.
Bartkowicz's lawyer, Joseph Saint-Veltri, has declined comment but submitted a legal brief saying Colorado law should be respected. He even quoted a Federalist Paper penned by James Madison extolling states' right to legislate "lives, liberties and properties of the people."
Jeff Sweetin, special agent in charge of the DEA's Rocky Mountain Region, said state and local police hesitate to go after pot growers because of the conflict between state and federal law. Federal authorities are the only ones left to enforce marijuana laws, he said.
"I'm not here to be the regulator of medical marijuana," Sweetin said, adding he'd prefer to "work the highest-level drug-trafficking organizations."
Instead, he fields daily phone calls and e-mails about medical marijuana growers. Half want the DEA to ignore them; half want the DEA to bust neighborhood dispensaries, he said.
A brief filed in Bartkowicz's case by U.S. Attorney David Gaouette argues that no matter what Coloradans voted for, no grow operation gets a federal pass.
"Colorado's state drug law does not, and cannot, abrogate federal drug laws," Gaouette wrote.
Last year, Deputy U.S. Attorney General David Ogden released a memo saying federal prosecutors wouldn't pursue marijuana dispensaries following state law. Many activists credit Ogden's memo with the recent explosion in marijuana dispensaries in states that allow medical marijuana.
"Because of the Ogden Memorandum, the federal government has induced the citizens of Colorado to believe and conclude that they will not be prosecuted or their property seized," Saint-Veltri wrote in his brief.
Bartkowicz was expected to attend a plea hearing Friday, but Saint-Veltri sought a delay Wednesday, saying he'd lost touch with his client, who couldn't be reached for this story.
Democratic Rep. Jared Polis decried Bartkowicz's arrest in a Feb. 23 letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Polis called Colorado's marijuana approach "both practical and compassionate" and asked Holder to clarify how federal drug authorities plan to address marijuana growers. Polis hasn't gotten a reply, an aide said this week.
Fear of federal prosecution is choking a growing business, marijuana advocates say.
"It has been an intentional tactic from the DEA to show some muscle and show who's boss by busting marijuana growers," said Brian Vicente, head of Sensible Colorado, a marijuana legalization group.
He hopes Bartkowicz's arrest prompts a backlash against the DEA.
"They may have ended up just making a martyr of him and turned the public more in favor of legalization," Vicente said.
In rural Walsenburg, about 150 miles south of Denver, farmer Mike Stetler turned to marijuana after a career growing lettuce and tomatoes. When one of his greenhouses was raided by local authorities in 2008, Stetler set out to persuade officials he's no criminal. He even hosted county commissioners on a greenhouse tour last fall.
"They think we're like a Mexican drug cartel, selling on the streets," said Stetler, 54, who said he started growing marijuana because his daughter uses it for multiple sclerosis.
"We're constantly trying to educate law enforcement, and it's getting better. I think they realize this business is inevitable," Stetler added. "But the fear of federal agents coming down, taking your plants, that's always there."
Stetler wasn't charged with a crime, but 44 plants seized in the raid weren't returned.