Pubdate: Thu, 05 Jan 2012
Source: Fort Collins Coloradoan (CO)
Copyright: 2012 The Fort Collins Coloradoan
Author: Robert Allen


Fort Collins Man Says He Had Right To Grow Confiscated Plants,
Patients Will Suffer Without His Home-grow And His Neighbors Are Now
Suspicious. Police Say Operation Is A Felony.

Stephen Minardi says he's done nothing wrong.

He says the 50 marijuana plants in his west Fort Collins home are 
there to treat legal patients who can't afford to buy from 
store-front medical marijuana centers.

Minardi, who, along with his wife, is facing felony charges of 
cultivation and distribution, said the criminal case makes them "look 
like massive Al Pacino drug dealers."

Fort Collins police have reason to doubt the Minardis' story. The day 
before Thanksgiving, they served a search warrant and confiscated 
processed marijuana and $3,400 cash at Minardi's home, where pictures 
of his wife and three children line the walls of the living room.

As dispensaries close, police worry about the rise of larger 
home-grow operations. They're allowed under state law, but lawyers 
and law enforcement officials continue to deal with gray areas 
regarding how much a person can grow, and even what constitutes a plant.

The laws leave people like Stephen Minardi in a precarious position.
"I'm proud of what I do," he said. "I take care of people."

As dispensaries close, will home grows rise?

In a room past the kitchen, two black, enclosed tents at Stephen and 
Leslie Minardi's home contain marijuana plants. Documentation wasn't 
sufficient to support the 213 plants found in the residence, 
according to police.

"It's been a witch hunt for little people," said Minardi, 44, who has 
chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and a medical-marijuana 
license. "Now, all my neighbors look at me like I'm a friggin' drug lord."

As communities such as Fort Collins move to shut storefront centers, 
Fort Collins Police Capt. Jerry Schiager said larger home-grows could 
increase, and police will need to be watching for them.

"From a public safety standpoint, it's concerning," he said, adding 
that neighborhood operations are a "huge target" for thefts, 
robberies and environmental issues such as mold. "It doesn't belong 
in a residential neighborhood in that scale."

While state law allows for one patient to have up to six plants, it 
isn't clear on the limits of a residential, nondispensary grow 
operation when factors such as caregivers and multiple residents are 
taken into account. A city ordinance passed last year in Fort Collins 
limits residential operations to 12 plants.

What is a plant?

Minardi said many of the "plants" in his home were closer to plant 
matter - fresh-cut "clones" snipped off more mature plants and placed 
in a tray.

"If it doesn't have a root, you can't count it as a plant," he said, 
adding that this would be the same as counting seeds as plants.

Both Minardis' doctor's recommendations allow for up to 72 plants, in 
part because Stephen Mindardi said his medical condition requires 
that he ingest - rather than smoke - his medicine. He cares for a few 
patients and has documents identifying them.

When police served the warrant, none of the plants were in the 
flowering stage, he said.

The arrest-warrant affidavit filed in 8th Judicial District court for 
Stephen and Leslie Minardi states the plants were "in various stages 
of growth and production."

Sean McAllister, a Denver defense attorney with a focus on medical 
marijuana, said a physician's recommendation for anything more than 
six plants has led to "a major area of confusion."

He said courts can require proof that the higher amount was necessary.

"In some jurisdictions, the (district attorneys) will totally dismiss 
that," he said. "In my experience, Fort Collins is renowned for this 
attitude of coming in and busting people and saying, 'There's no such 
thing as medical marijuana. You're under arrest.'"

Schiager said police come across a few home-grow operations monthly, 
and there are "certainly a lot of people" with a small amount growing 
in a basement or bedroom who comply with the law and are left alone.

But in a number of cases, the legality of a grow isn't immediately obvious.
"It's very gray, very nebulous, trying to enforce all that," Schiager said.

'I'm not screwing this up'

Police suspected the Minardis planned to sell marijuana through a 
black-market deal in June, when they stopped three people from Kansas 
near the King Soopers parking lot at Taft Hill Road and Elizabeth Street.

Two of the people had warrants. They were found to have $3,200 cash 
and a mobile phone that showed a text-message exchange with Stephen 
Mindardi's phone, identifying Minardi's number with an image of 
marijuana buds.

"The text messages between Farner and Steve indicated that they were 
there to meet, and Farner let Steve know he had arrived. Farner had 
texted Steve that 'He was at the corner' and Steve said he was on his 
way. However, Farner texted him back, saying that the 'Cops were 
there and to hold on,' " according to the affidavit.
Minardi and his wife said they never left the house that night, and 
Stephen Minardi was recovering from arm surgery a week earlier.

He said he could be connected with the people through a mutual 
acquaintance, but he doesn't know who could have used his phone to 
send the messages.

He said he never sold any marijuana to anyone who didn't have a card.

"I'm not screwing this up by selling it illegally," Minardi said.

Police previously observed the grow operation at the Minardi house 
following a disturbance call. After pulling utility records and 
observing growing equipment at the home, police served the warrant.

A .22-caliber rifle that was incapable of firing was confiscated, and 
Stephen Minardi was later charged with possession of a weapon by a 
previous offender. In 1987, while in Arizona, he was charged with 
forgery, according to court records.

The Minardis turned themselves in the night of Dec. 29, shortly after 
the arrest warrant was issued. They were booked and released on bond 
from Larimer County Jail.

They face charges for cultivation of marijuana (greater than 30 
plants), a class 4 felony punishable by two to six years in prison; 
and distribution of marijuana (less than five pounds), a class 5 
felony punishable by one to three years in prison.
He said the $3,400 in cash found at his home was from the recent sale 
of an old Hyundai, some video-game equipment and two grow tents.

While he gives away about half of the marijuana to patients, he said 
his income is mainly through social security and a small moving company.

Leslie Minardi is a licensed truck driver. She said that, after 
having back surgery, she was unable to stomach pain killers.

The two said the cash taken by police was for Thanksgiving dinner and 
Black Friday Christmas shopping. So, this year, they didn't buy their 
children presents - but the kids chipped in and surprised them with a 
tree and a few gifts.

"We are family-oriented people," Stephen Minardi said. "We scrape by 
every month to pay rent on this house."

He said patients are now hesitant to stop by, but he wants to keep 
providing for them.

The Minardis will be at the Larimer County Justice Center for a first 
appearance at 8:30 a.m. Friday.
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