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Pot Businesses Raided Ahead Of Legal Sales

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Police outside VIP Cannabis in Denver during a raid (credit: CBS)

Police outside VIP Cannabis in Denver during a raid (credit: CBS)

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DENVER (AP) – Sending a strong message to Colorado’s marijuana industry just weeks before recreational sales begin, federal agents raided a handful of marijuana dispensaries and growing sites.

Agents ripped pot plants from specialized warehouses and piled them on roadsides and parking lots, with the only explanation that the businesses had violated guidelines issued last summer from the U.S. Department of Justice, which said the federal government would largely ignore states that flout federal drug law by allowing marijuana, as long as the pot business keeps the drug away from children, the black market and federal property.

The businesses raided Thursday violated those guidelines, said Jeff Dorschner, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Denver. He wouldn’t elaborate or say how many places were raided, though estimates compiled by industry advocates put the number at about a dozen.

At one of the raided dispensaries, VIP Cannabis in Denver, a front window was shattered and agents loaded boxes into a rental truck. One officer wore a surgical mask. Several operators, including some at VIP Cannabis, didn’t return calls seeking comment.

In Boulder, agents raided a number of marijuana-growing warehouses, leaving a chest-high pile of pot plants on the side of a road before loading them into trucks, The Daily Camera reported.

The criminal investigations unit of the Internal Revenue Service, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and Denver authorities were involved in executing the sealed search and seizure warrants, Dorschner said.

Deirdre Stepter, an IRS spokeswoman, declined to elaborate.

Daria Serna, a spokeswoman for Colorado’s revenue department, which regulates the industry, said the agency was aware of the raids and would “continue to cooperate with the ongoing investigation.”

Retail marijuana sales are set to begin on Jan. 1 in Colorado, though not all municipalities will be ready to regulate sales by then. For now, dispensaries are supposed to sell only to people with medical permission to use the drug. Many of the state’s 500 or so existing dispensaries are making plans to convert to recreational sales.

People involved in Colorado’s marijuana industry were quick to point out that the raids did not necessarily mean the federal government was going back on its word or planning to interfere with Colorado’s recreational pot market.

Mike Elliott, a spokesman for the Medical Marijuana Industry Group, said the industry itself has pushed for robust regulations and expects compliance with lengthy state regulations on how the drug and be grown and sold.

“While everyone involved in these raids should be considered innocent until proven guilty, enforcement is a sign that this program is working and maturing,” he said in a statement.

Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project said it wasn’t clear how many businesses were raided. Many dispensaries and growing warehouses were operating as usual Thursday.

He said in a statement that he hopes federal authorities were “sticking to their word and not interfering with any state-regulated, law-abiding businesses.”

By COLLEEN SLEVIN and KRISTEN WYATT, Associated Press

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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