The hazy world of legal pot
Marijuana laws put workers in tough spot
@TrevorHughes USA TODAY
DENVER Every time he goes to work, Harvard-trained lawyer Andrew Freedman faces federal prosecution over the source of his paycheck: Colorado’s burgeoning marijuana industry.
Freedman, the governor’s chief marijuana adviser, faces prison time if federal prosecutors decide to step in. That’s because federal law still considers marijuana as dangerous as heroin or cocaine, and prosecutors could easily bring drugtrafficking charges if they choose. Freedman’s salary is paid by the taxes collected on legal marijuana sales.
“I’m in murky territory every day,” Freedman said.
Tens of thousands of marijuana growers, bud tenders, edibles makers, store owners and couriers working in Colorado and Washington and any of the other 21 states and the District of Columbia that have legalized recreational or medical marijuana face the same penalties.
The risk is even greater for dozens of former cops and soldiers working as armed guards in the marijuana industry because federal drug-trafficking laws prescribe far stiffer penalties for anyone using a firearm while handling drugs and money.
Several of the guards interviewed by USA TODAY say they chose to work for Blue Line Protection Group despite the legal risks, saying it was safer than being shot at by insurgents or dealing with violent criminals daily.
Federal prosecutors have held off bringing charges against security firms protecting and servicing the marijuana industry, even though they’re aware of the flagrant violations. USA TODAY in July published numerous photos of Colorado- based security-firm workers carrying pot, cash and weapons – photos federal agents and prosecutors say they saw.
The situation highlights the tenuous balance federal prosecutors strike as they monitor the sale of legalized marijuana. Marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, even though voters in Colorado and Washington have allowed adults to possess and consume it for fun.
Federal officials say they’re trying to balance state law while keeping pot out of the hands of kids and profits away from drug cartels.
Marijuana-industry workers acknowledge the risks, but say they’re assuming federal prosecutors will leave them alone as long as they keep to the strictest interpretation of the state law. “If you touch the product, then you’re at risk for federal prosecution,” said Michael Jerome, a spokesman for Blue Line, which provides armed guards to transport marijuana and cash for potshop owners. “That’s why we’re trying to make it safe and legitimate and responsible, so we can respect the wishes of the voters of the state of Colorado and keep the federal government out of it.”
Blue Line, like many of the approximately 100 other security firms, explains the situation to new hires in the several states it operates. Pay for a Blue Line store guard starts at $13 an hour but can go up rapidly based on assignments, such as cash transport and management, that only workers with extensive experience can snag. For former soldiers, in particular, working for Blue Line is a way to acclimate to civilian life and build a rsum.
“We don’t keep any secrets from prospective employees, because we don’t want them to get into a situation they’ll regret in the future or that will get them into potential legal problems,” Jerome said. “But if enough states come online, then the hope is that the feds will finally change the legal standards related to marijuana; or, at the very least, there will be so many people operating in the lawful state industries that any federal enforcement action would be met with huge public backlash and potential legal action from the states.”