Sandee Burbank is 65 years old, a breast cancer survivor, a grandmother and a longtime community volunteer in her hometown of Mosier, Oregon. She also uses marijuana.
Burbank is one of Oregon's 23,000-plus marijuana cardholders and also the executive director of Mothers Against Misuse and Abuse, a group that has long held two-day clinics here in Bend to assist residents in obtaining medical marijuana cards. She doesn't think of herself as a criminal - even if federal law says she is - and she hasn't for a long while, ever since taking up the cause of medical marijuana in the early 1990s. This winter, her organization plans to open a permanent clinic in Bend. It's the first such business in the region and comes at a time when marijuana and the enforcement puzzle surrounding it is becoming an increasingly frequent topic of political discussion.
Just this year, Oregon has seen bills supporting a state-operated medical marijuana production process introduced to the legislature and another "legalize pot" voter referendum is in the works. Meanwhile, the business of marijuana is booming in Oregon.
The state is the nation's third-largest producer of indoor grown marijuana and the total value of Oregon's pot harvest exceeds that of its other two leading cash crops, hay and wheat, with a total value of roughly $472 million dollars in 2006, according to the not-for-profit marijuana research organization, Drugscience.org.
This summer saw the seizure of nearly 100,000 outdoor marijuana plants statewide. While most of that marijuana is headed for the black market, a growing number of Oregonians are accessing their pot with the blessing of state authorities, due to Oregon's medical marijuana program. The number of medical marijuana cardholders has skyrocketed in Central Oregon, as well as statewide with almost 24,000 (and growing) residents currently authorized under the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program.
Medical marijuana has created a cottage industry in Oregon and in the other 13 states (as well as Canada) that have such laws on the books. In Bend, we very well may soon have two different medical marijuana clinics, both operating like any other business - paying rent and hiring full-time employees, but there's more to the industry than that. Plenty of money can be made selling the high-end growing equipment needed for indoor cultivation, as well as pipes, vaporizers and other paraphernalia. And of course, the selling of marijuana itself is a lucrative yet still highly illegal activity that one former local grower says is a widespread phenomenon.
The increasing social acceptance and medical use of marijuana combined with Oregon's vague laws have left law enforcement agents floating in a sea of gray as they try to enforce laws that roughly half of the general public, according to recent polls, some lawmakers and even fellow law enforcement officials don't agree with. In the meantime, they say the current laws have allowed marijuana cardholders nearly carte blanche to grow high-grade marijuana with fear of little more than a slap on the wrist.
Peppered in basements and backrooms of houses throughout the city, significant amounts of marijuana are being grown and subsequently distributed. For the most part, this is high-quality weed, cultivated under the watchful eye of experienced growers with the use of industrial-strength lights, timed watering systems and other high-end equipment, all of which can be purchased locally or with the click of a mouse. Indoor growers alone cultivated some 131,000 pounds of marijuana in 2006 in Oregon, according to Drugscience.org.
I'm learning a little about the local growing scene from a man who spent a good part of this decade growing marijuana in Bend but has since moved on to a professional career. He's not, nor has he ever been, a cardholder, and at one point was making as much as $8,000 a month growing pot. He describes his operation, and that of the small circle of growers he associated with, as quite clandestine but not associated with the criminal elements that some may assume go hand in hand with growing marijuana.
"In Bend, the people growing aren't people with guns or anything like that. They're just normal people with snowboards," he says, but adds that both of the rented homes at which he grew plants were broken into.
He says all the while he acknowledged what he was doing could very well result in some serious consequences, but was never sure that what he was doing was exactly "wrong."
"If you're smoking pot and you still feel like you're doing something illegal, then do you feel the same way when you go five miles over the speed limit?" he asks.
This is almost exactly the same metaphor Deschutes County District Attorney Mike Dugan uses when asked how difficult it is to enforce a law that an increasing number of his constituents might not deem necessary.
"A lot of people out there think it's OK to drive 65 and probably a lot of people out there think it's OK to smoke marijuana," says Dugan, adding again that there is still a law on the books to enforce, and as the top law enforcement official in the county, it's his job to enforce that law.
COPS AND THE LAW
Medical marijuana cardholders may grow, use and possess pot here in Oregon, but they are still committing a federal crime. Under the Bush administration, federal authorities arrested marijuana cardholders in both Oregon and California, but holding to a campaign promise, the Obama administration has changed course. Just two weeks ago, Attorney General Eric Holder sent out a memo instructing federal prosecutors to no longer go after those abiding by state medical marijuana laws. Authorities in California suspect their boom in dispensaries in the past year is a result of this ceasefire on marijuana providers - which are, under California state law, required to be non-profit organizations that grow their own product, yet are increasingly buying large quantities that are then sold off at high prices.
In Oregon, medical marijuana "patients," as clinic operators refer to cardholders, are free under state law to possess 24 ounces of "usable" marijuana, and can grow as many as 24 total plants: 18 of which must be under 12 inches in any direction with no buds and six that can be grown to an unlimited size. Currently, the list of medical conditions for which one can receive medical marijuana ranges from glaucoma to cancer to Alzheimer's, but the vast majority (21,087 of Oregon's 23,873 total cardholders as of October 1) are granted a permit to use marijuana for vaguely defined "severe pain."
Dugan, discussing the issue of "severe pain" as a reason for using medical marijuana jokingly calls medical marijuana a "pain in my ass," referring to the bevy of problems for law enforcement that can and do result from the program and its users.
"If they follow [the medical marijuana laws], they have their defense. If they abuse it, it doesn't apply to them. We're very careful about asking people when we catch them with pot if they have their medical marijuana card," says Dugan.
The marijuana program is indeed abused, says Lt. John Gautney, who heads up the Central Oregon Drug Enforcement task force (CODE). Marijuana does not, by any means, make up the bulk of CODE's work. Gautney says crime surrounding methamphetamine and cocaine traffic accounts for a significant amount of work done by the team, which includes members of all of the tri-county region's city and county law enforcement agencies. Still, medical marijuana does come across CODE's radar and from what Gautney has to say, there are certainly cardholders that abuse their growing privileges.
"This year, we've had 13 indoor grows and out of that, eight of those were out-of-compliance medical grows. If they're out of compliance by having too many plants, we would issue them a citation," says Gautney, who adds that any excess plants are seized by the enforcement team and the charging decision is referred to the district attorney, but no arrest is made. If, however, there were signs that the medical grower was selling the pot, he or she would indeed be arrested and all the plants would be seized.
The idea of two medical marijuana clinics coming to Bend - one operated by Burbank's Mothers Against Misuse and Abuse (MAMA) and the other by The Hemp and Cannabis Foundation - within months of each other might seem like overkill for a town of Bend's size, considering we only have two movie theaters and one Jack in the Box. But look at the numbers. As of July 1 of this year, there were 988 registered medical marijuana cardholders in Deschutes County, but by October 1, there were 1,110 - a 12.3 percent increase in just three months. We now have one cardholder for every 142 residents, a higher ratio than the more urban, more politically progressive Multnomah County, which has a cardholder for every 174 residents.
None of the pot grown under the program can be sold, even to a fellow cardholder. But the law leaves a loophole that allows for free exchange that groups like MAMA have taken advantage of. MAMA has at times used a co-op like system in which caregivers provide marijuana, free of cost, to those who aren't able or aren't equipped to grow for themselves. But to assume that no one is selling marijuana that's grown for medical purposes is, according to local law enforcement officials, quite naïve.
"We've seen where some medical marijuana card holders are acquiring their maxium level of pot, selling half of it and using half of it and then getting more," says Dugan.
Following in California's wake, Oregon became the second state to implement a medical marijuana program in 1998 when some 54 percent of Oregon voters approved Measure 67, with vote totals in Deschutes County also supporting the measure. Prior to the vote, Dugan, a Democrat whose wife, Judy Stiegler, serves in the state legislature, penned an October 1998 guest editorial in The Bulletin in which he opposed the measure, calling it a "backdoor path to legislation." Now, 11 years later, Dugan is still skeptical about the OMMP and what he sees as its vague clinical definitions. He says he's seen cases come across his desk of a cardholder selling pot to juveniles and is aware of at least one case of a student bringing his or her parents' medical marijuana to school.
"It's not that I'm a fan or not, it's the law. We're going to follow the law. It is abused and sometimes that abuse is difficult to find," says Dugan.
As if the medical marijuana program didn't create enough gray area, there's also the fact that possession of small amounts of marijuana - less than an ounce - is not a criminal offense but more on par with a traffic offense. Marijuana has been decriminalized since 1973 in Oregon, but that doesn't make it a legal drug.
"That gave a mixed message, because if you had one gram over an ounce, you had a B-felony, and granted nobody was going to prison for that amount, but nevertheless it was a felony," says Dugan.
Not all cops agree with the Reagan and George W. Bush-era philosophy that more troops are needed in the war on drugs.
Former Deschutes County Sheriff Les Stiles is hardly a proponent of marijuana legalization, saying that we need to look at reasons why our society, as a whole, uses drugs before trading enforcement and education for legalization. Still, he raises questions about the wisdom of the current approach when it comes to marijuana.
"There's a wide group of people across Deschutes County I talked to when I was both campaigning and serving as sheriff. It's a wide demographic, and the vast majority were saying, 'Why are you wasting your time with pot?'" says Stiles.
And he agrees with this, to a point.
"Frankly, I don't think it's a good use of resources. The bottom line is, if you continue to fight a war on drugs the way we're doing it, we're going to lose," says Stiles. "But there has to be a certain amount of enforcement as long as it's an illegal substance. If there's no enforcement of any law, then the law becomes a joke."
MARIJUANA AS MEDICINE
Burbank's MAMA organiztion, now holds two clinics a month in Bend. She helped found the organization in 1982, and says in a voice marked with a grandmotherly tenderness, that the people coming in to obtain cards aren't the bleary eyed stoners oftentimes associated with marijuana. In her view, this is simply medicine.
"We have had a huge swell in people that are in their 50s, 60s and 70s that have tried the pharmaceutical route and have found that too severe. Now they're turning to medical marijuana as an alternative," says Burbank.
Burbank, who spent 18 years on the Wasco County Planning Commission and served as the chair of a citizen's task force for the county's jails, has first-hand knowledge of the medical marijuana program. She obtained a medical card after surviving breast cancer and suffering significant car accident injuries. Her interest in medical marijuana began in 1991 when she met a glaucoma sufferer who was undergoing an experimental medical marijuana treatment overseen by the federal government. While working with MAMA, Burbank has also helped the organization develop several programs outside of medical marijuana including literacy and parenting outreach. For her work on the medical marijuana advocacy front, Burbank was recognized by the Drug Policy Alliance with a national award for citizen action.
MAMA plans to open a permanent office in Bend before the end of the year, making it the first of its kind in the region. A second group, The Hemp and Cannabis Foundation - which operates clinics in eight different states, including a Portland office - also plans to open up shop in the coming months in Bend. These won't be the sort of dispensaries that have popped up like, well, weeds in California, as such operations are prohibited by Oregon state law.
Burbank says a MAMA clinic isn't the free pass to a loaded bong that some might think. Rather, the clinic expedites the process by which one can obtain a medical card by facilitating a meeting with a doctor at the clinic. MAMA guidelines require the physician to review a year's worth of the patient's medical records detailing the ailment for which he or she is seeking marijuana. The whole process takes about 90 minutes and could result in authorization from a doctor to become eligible for the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program (OMMP), which requires a $100 application fee.
As the number of cardholders in Oregon grows, bringing with it a boom in producers and the legal and not-so legal cottage industry, lawmakers have considered increasing the state's oversight of how OMMP cardholders obtain their marijuana. House Bill 3274, which would have created a state-run medical marijuana production and dispensary system, made its way into the last legislative session, but was killed in committee.
Rep. Ron Maurer, a Republican representing Grant's Pass who has described himself as "not a pot guy," introduced HB 3274 believing it would cut down on the abuse occurring under the current OMMP.
"We think that the program is a mess. Our end goal is to make sure the medication is delivered to the patients in a dignified medical manner. We don't treat any other pharmaceutical control the way we treat marijuana," says Allison MacMullin, Maurer's chief of staff, speaking on behalf of the representative who was on a trip to China.
The bill was similar to 2004's Measure 33, which was voted down by some 57 percent of voters. Although handily defeated, this meant that in 2004, when medical marijuana was still being actively pursued by the DEA, 43 percent of voters were open to the notion of state-run dispensaries - hardly a fringe element.
There's been a visible increase in societal acceptance of marijuana usage. A Zogby poll taken in late 2008 showed that 52 percent of those polled nationwide favored making marijuana a legalized, regulated and taxed substance. In Bend, a pair of local business owners aren't afraid to support more open marijuana laws. Santiago Casanueva, owner of Top Leaf Yerba Mate, which will soon open a store in Bend's Tin Pan Alley, and Thad Petterson, who owns Peadpod Glass Design, best known for its custom door and cabinet knobs, are sitting around a coffee shop table contemplating where marijuana stands in our society, especially in this region. Petterson feels that Oregon's culture is especially accepting of marijuana use (regardless of what laws might be on the books), more so than other places in the country.
"If you aren't from Oregon, you go back to your home town and it's probably a different feeling there when it comes to marijuana," says Petterson, who is also a medical cardholder.
Petterson doesn't favor all-out legalization, but rather some sort of regulated and substantially taxed system by which less than two ounces of marijuana are permissible. Casanueva speaks on a broader level when it comes to marijuana. He concedes that there are plenty of medical cardholders who use the program as a guise for their personal enjoyment of pot and thinks that our society needs to reevaluate its position on marijuana.
"I think that the only reason why some people say they smoke medicinally is because it's illegal," says Casanueva.
California might be considered the standard bearer in marijuana decriminalization, and with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger saying the state should at least investigate the issue of legalization, it may seem closer than ever. But in reality, legalization in California, or here in Oregon is still a ways off. Paul Stanford is part of a group called Oregon Cannabis Tax Act 2010 that is attempting to get a marijuana measure in front of voters on the 2010 ballot that would create a state agency, not unlike the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, to oversee the sale and regulation of marijuana. Stanford, who is also director of the The Hemp and Cannabis Foundation, one of the groups planning to open a medical marijuana clinic in Bend, says that this would drive down the price of marijuana and also provide revenue for the state.