DENVER—A suburban Denver marijuana grower who insisted he was abiding by state law is taking on federal authorities who charged him with illegal cultivation after he talked on TV about growing pot.
Chris Bartkowicz is charged with cultivating marijuana, a federal crime punishable by five to 40 years in prison and a $2 million fine. He had been set to change his plea of not guilty in federal court Friday. Instead, his lawyer said Bartkowicz plans to go to trial.
The next step is a federal indictment. Bartkowicz said he wants to clear his name but wouldn’t say why he originally planned to change his not guilty plea.
“I’d love to put this story straight but I’ll let the court figure it out,” he said.
Bartkowicz got into trouble in February after talking to KUSA-TV about growing marijuana, calling it his “golden ticket” and saying he’d make $400,000 off the plants in his tony Highlands Ranch home.
A day after parts of the story aired, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration seized more than 200 plants from Bartkowicz’s basement. Though Colorado has allowed medical marijuana under certain circumstances since 2000, pot remains illegal under federal law.
Bartkowicz’s case sparked national attention because he first argued he was following Colorado law on growing medical marijuana for patients who designated him to do so. Federal prosecutors said he had more plants than the state permits, though they are careful to point out that state laws on marijuana wouldn’t matter in a federal court. Marijuana activists have seized the case to argue growers are being targeted by federal drug authorities despite having state clearance.
U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat, decried DEA tactics in a February letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Polis wrote that the federal government signaled in memos last year it would “respect” state laws and urged the DEA to clarify its enforcement policies. Polis hasn’t gotten a response.
Bartkowicz, who is free on bond, wouldn’t say whether he’d argue in court that he was following state law. Federal prosecutors say that isn’t a valid defense in federal court.
Before the hearing, a reporter asked what he made of his fame among marijuana activists who see him as a martyr.
“I don’t want to be that guy,” Bartkowicz said. He noted he’d moved out of his home and is staying “on a friend’s couch.”
His lawyer, Joseph Saint-Veltri, declined to comment about defense strategy.