Joe Hanel/Durango Herald
DENVER – Colorado’s marijuana police will carry guns like no other in law enforcement.
They look like oversized versions of the handheld scanners at the Home Depot checkout. Pulling the trigger won’t make the gun spit out a bullet. Instead, it emits radio waves that can detect all of the marijuana plant tags in a room.
State officials believe good data is one of their best weapons as they attempt to convert the marijuana black market into a legitimate business.
With the first legal, over-the-counter pot sales expected New Year’s Day, the stakes are high for the Department of Revenue’s new system. The federal government is watching closely to make sure marijuana – which still is illegal under federal law – doesn’t get diverted out of Colorado’s licensed grow houses and into the black market in other states.
Department of Revenue officials previewed the “seed-to-sale” system for the news media Wednesday and said they were excited to start using it.
“We also understand it does not substitute for really good police work,” said Lewis Koski, chief of investigations for the Marijuana Enforcement Division.
An audit in March revealed the Department of Revenue’s first attempt to create a seed-to-sale tracking system for medical marijuana failed because regulators ran out of money. The department has spent about $1.2 million on the system, and it’s finally ready to go. It will track both medical and recreational marijuana.
The overall goal is to make sure all pot sold over the counter in Colorado is in a “closed system,” meaning no illegal drugs are coming in from outside licensed grow operations, and nothing is being sold into the black market, said Ron Kammerzell, senior director of the Marijuana Enforcement Division.
Employees at marijuana growing operations will attach a tag with a barcode to each plant. The barcode can be read from 16 feet away by the radio-wave guns that inspectors carry.
As the plant grows and is harvested, grow-house employees will apply stickers with the same barcode to bags of pot, or to edibles and other marijuana-infused products.
“If it contains marijuana, it’s tracked in the system,” said Jeff Wells, president of Franwell Inc., which built the system.
Inspectors will stop tracking the marijuana once it is sold to a consumer.
Franwell, the private vendor that built the system, has experience in tracking agricultural products throughout the supply chain. The company is training marijuana business managers how to use the system now.
Kammerzell said his agents will keep employees of pot businesses honest through on-site inspections, both announced and unannounced. The businesses also are required to keep video cameras trained on their premises at all times and to retain the tapes.
“This (tracking system) is not by itself a solution for every problem,” Kammerzell said.
The first over-the-counter recreational marijuana stores will be converted medical pot dispensaries. Regulators want every medical marijuana business to be using the system by Dec. 31.