Pot find is the legal kind
August 17, 2007
Anita Burke, Medford Mail Tribune (OR)
The officers serving a search warrant on what they thought was a massive marijuana-growing operation had swarmed a greenhouse filled with plants and were poised to kick in the door of a house on the property when the word came.
This was a registered medical marijuana site and it complied with Oregon law.
"This is a frustration for us," said Sgt. Rick Valentine, supervisor of the Jackson County Narcotics Enforcement Team, who coordinated the seven Jackson County Sheriff's Department employees making this search earlier this month. "When we spend time on what turns out to be legal activity, it takes away from what we could do on illegal activities."
But if the misguided raid was a frustration for investigators, it was a shock to the grower, who arrived home to find a fleet of law enforcement sport-utility vehicles parked in his driveway and officers everywhere.
"I felt pretty violated," said the grower, who didn't want to be named in the newspaper. "I'm not a criminal.
"They turned out to be nice-enough guys, but I wish they had talked to me."
He said he wished his neighbors who complained about his 65-foot-long greenhouse filled with bushy marijuana plants had come to him before contacting police.
He could have explained that he is the registered grower for four medical-marijuana patients — a 22-year-old woman who was in a car crash and suffers from back pain, her mother who has multiple sclerosis, a woman with ovarian cancer, and an elderly man who has battled excruciating migraine headaches for years.
But as marijuana — whether in registered medical-marijuana gardens or vast cartel-operated plots in the forest — matures in the Southern Oregon summer, most people, wisely, don't stop to ask questions. They call police.
"Once the plants extend beyond a fence, we get calls on a pretty regular basis," Medford police Lt. Tim Doney said.
Valentine said his agency gets at least one call every day this time of year from someone who has spotted pot plants. He estimates that nearly 90 percent of easily visible gardens are medical marijuana, but investigators must follow up every call.
"It used to be real clear-cut," Doney said. "If you saw marijuana, it was illegal. Now we have to do more homework."
Investigators start by checking the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program database of medical marijuana patients, caregivers and growing sites. The program, operated by the Department of Human Services, shows that as of July 1, the state had issued 14,868 medical marijuana cards statewide, including 1,295 in Jackson County. The number of registered growing sites isn't publicly available.
Under the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act, each cardholder can have six mature plants, 18 seedlings, and 24 ounces of usable marijuana. A registered grower can grow for up to four cardholders.
But investigators say the law is sometimes abused, and if they have suspicions backed up by observation or witness statements, they will seek a search warrant. They've done that twice this summer, only to find compliant growers, Valentine said.
He said that in his initial survey of the site searched earlier this month, he estimated the greenhouse contained about 300 plants. But when the officers serving the search warrant counted stems, there were only 24 — the number authorized by the four cards the grower displayed at the site.
"The law doesn't say what 'too big of a plant' is," Valentine said.
The grower said the family friends and acquaintances who chose him to produce their medical marijuana selected him because they knew he could nurture plants.
"I have a good horticultural resume," he said, touting his experience on two organic farms in Washington. He has grown medical marijuana in the Rogue Valley for two years.
He creates organic compost teas to feed the plants and for his efforts over a six-month growing season to produce a year's worth of medicine, he is reimbursed $15,000 to $25,000, he said. State law allows cardholders to reimburse growers for supplies and utilities.
He said he grows a marijuana strain that produces a high volume with a low amount of active chemicals. He described it as "fluffy," but still noted that each mature plant produces between one and a half and two pounds of usable marijuana. The grower said advocacy groups around the state help facilitate transfers of excess marijuana. State law allows a cardholder to give marijuana to another cardholder if no money is exchanged, but authorities said there is no clear provision for clubs to swap or share marijuana.
"For voters, the intent was good," Valentine said of the medical marijuana law Oregon voters approved in 1998. "They wanted to help people who were suffering, but this has gone beyond what people envisioned."
He said permitting smaller amounts and requiring growers to submit to compliance checks would make enforcement easier for police.
He estimates that JACNET currently spends nearly 50 percent of its time investigating complaints about marijuana ultimately found to be compliant, medical growing operations.
"It takes a lot of time out of our schedule that could be spent on methamphetamine or heroin, which is increasing here," Valentine said.
The grower searched this month said he understands how people can have fears about drugs and drug-related violence in their neighborhoods when they see marijuana growing.
"If I saw something that looked dangerous next to my home, I would want it checked out, too," he said.
However, he said people shouldn't feel threatened just because they don't understand the medical marijuana program and assume all growers are criminal.
"I run a clean operation," he said. "I have my own family to keep safe."
He said the greenhouse shields neighbors from the scent and view of his controversial crop. He reiterates, though, that a majority of voters has authorized operations like his.
"Like it or not, it's the law," he said.
Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485 or at firstname.lastname@example.org