Why Marijuana Advocates Disagree On Legal Home Growing

As more states look to reform their marijuana laws, lawmakers and advocates are divided over legal home cultivation.
Posted at 3:34 PM, Jun 26, 2019

The issue of home grown marijuana has been largely overlooked in the national debate over weed legalization. Advocates say those living in states that have legalized it should be able to grow it -- just like they can brew beer at home. Others warn it's not that simple. 

"This is a very noticeable impact on communities, especially in places with large home grow numbers that you're allowed to have," said Andrew Freedman, former director of marijuana coordination in Colorado. 

Freedman oversaw the implementation of Colorado's marijuana legalization program from 2014 to 2017 and now advises other state lawmakers looking to reform their cannabis laws. 

He says one of the big problems with home growing is how widely weed laws vary from state to state. And he says Colorado, which permits home growing, is a perfect example of how bad actors can take advantage of it to bolster an illegal black market.

"The biggest problem is you could grow in one state where marijuana might be worth cannabis, might be worth $800 a pound. And you can ship to a state where it can be worth between $2,500 to $3,000 a pound, and when that kind of economic incentive exists, there are going to be a lot of people that try to take advantage of it," Freedman said. 

Freedman says that while many people grow within state laws, the lure of big money on the black market has led to a rash of large illegal grows hiding in plain site -- when drug dealers or even cartels grow way more than is permitted.

Earlier this year, the Department of Justice conducted the largest marijuana black market takedown in Colorado history. They arrested 42 individuals and seized over 80,000 marijuana plants and 4,500 pounds of finished marijuana products.  

It's not just the black market that's an issue.  Homes growing marijuana have been robbed or vandalized. 

There have even been instances of violence, including murders in association with marijuana home robberies

Some states have taken notice. Of the 32 states and District of Columbia that have legalized marijuana in some form, 14 prohibit home growing. The 19 others each permit home growing, but with varying restrictions on the number of plants allowed. 

That's frustrated legal marijuana advocates who say black market home growing activity isn't a widespread issue.

"I would disagree that it really is a problem in that they were able to make those arrests in Colorado is a sign that the system's working," said Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML.

"They, despite the fact that adults across the state are able to grow a small number of plants, they were able to find and single out these criminal actors that were breaking the law and they arrested and will be and we'll be prosecuting them."

For advocates like Altieri, home cultivation is a civil right for cannabis consumers that guarantees equal access for everyone. 

"For the most part if you're a pretty out there in a rural area, it's not likely a dispensary is going to be nearby. And if you're already suffering from it from a serious illness getting someone to drive 50 miles to a dispensary to get your medicine is very problematic. So, a good solution for them is to be able to cultivate at home. They have their choice of which strains to have, it's much more low cost than if they were to go buy it at a store, and it's convenient and easier for them to procure," he said. 

Even opponents like Freedman say that while home growing might not be a good idea now, there is a place for home cultivation if marijuana becomes legal nationally. Until then, he's advising state legislators to make other provisions to ensure equal access to cannabis for all of their constituents. 

"What I tell governments is if you're not going to allow for this privilege, you need to make sure that there is rural accessibility, price accessibility. You need to do consistent market updates, make sure, particularly with the patient community, that there is enough accessibility, whether that means delivery or whether that means, everybody has something within 10 miles of their home. Um, that that needs to be a part of the calculus of your system then," Freedman said.