Denver-area pot grower agrees to 5 years in prison

AP News
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Posted: Oct 21, 2010 6:52 PM
Denver-area pot grower agrees to 5 years in prison

A suburban Denver pot grower who tried unsuccessfully to set up a federal-state showdown on medical marijuana agreed to a five-year prison term Thursday and was handcuffed in court after pleading guilty on federal drug charges.

Christopher Bartkowicz, 37, pleaded guilty to three drug charges, including cultivation, after federal drug agents raided his Highlands Ranch home in February and seized hundreds of pot plants growing in his basement.

The raid by the Drug Enforcement Administration came after a Denver TV station promoted a story in which Bartkowicz bragged about how much money he would make growing pot under Colorado medical marijuana rules.

Bartkowicz was originally scheduled to plead guilty in April. But he changed his mind on a plea deal and decided to pursue a defense that was based on recent signals from the White House not to pursue federal marijuana cases in states that allow medical marijuana.

Federal prosecutors sought to block Bartkowicz's argument. U.S. District Judge Philip A. Brimmer last month sided with the government, ruling that Justice Department memos about drug prosecutions aren't legal clearance to violate federal drug laws.

After Bartkowicz was blocked from using Colorado's marijuana law in his defense, as well as barred from bringing up the possible medicinal value of marijuana, he pleaded guilty.

Under Thursday's plea deal, which isn't final until Brimmer approves it Jan. 28, Bartkowicz will serve five years in prison on three charges _ cultivation, intent to distribute and having pot near a public elementary school. If he had gone to trial, Bartkowicz could have faced a life term because of a previous drug conviction.

After he pleaded guilty Thursday, Bartkowicz tried to remain on bond until formal sentencing. Brimmer rejected the request, and Bartkowicz removed his tie and was handcuffed by two deputies and led from the courtroom.

It's not clear whether Bartkowicz's earlier plea agreement, which he rejected, would have been gentler.

A separate pot grower, Rodney Jobe, was sentenced to three years of probation and time served on Wednesday by the same judge. Jobe pleaded guilty in June to cultivation charges for growing 374 marijuana plants inside a commercial building in Colorado Springs.

Jobe never talked to reporters about his pot-growing business, but Bartkowicz invited a KUSA-TV crew into his suburban home in February and bragged that he would make $400,000 a year from selling marijuana.

Bartkowicz's lawyer, Joseph Saint-Veltri, argued Thursday that Bartkowicz is being treated harshly because he's publicly criticized federal drug policy.

"One has to think that this is to punish Mr. Bartkowicz, to silence him," Saint-Veltri said while trying unsuccessfully to have Bartkowicz's bond extended until January. Brimmer refused.

The U.S. attorney for Colorado, John Walsh, put out a statement after Bartkowicz's plea calling the five-year sentence proper.

"That sentence is appropriate and proportionate given the circumstances of this specific crime," Walsh wrote.

Federal drug authorities are stepping up signals that they don't plan to abide by state marijuana laws that make pot legal.

On Wednesday, the director of the National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske, told The Associated Press that Justice Department officials haven't ruled out taking legal action against California if voters there approve a ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana use.

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Associated Press Writer Lisa Leff in San Francisco contributed to this report.