Oregon has fewer big medical pot grows

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) Major medical marijuana growers are changing their ways in Oregon after federal agents raided selected "monster grows" to send the message that they can't serve as cover for selling on the black market.

State figures obtained by The Associated Press show that the number of gardens registered as serving multiple patients will be far fewer in 2012.

The number of registered patients is also down, slightly, since the Legislature doubled medical marijuana fees to $200.

At harvest time last fall, federal agents heaped hundreds of plants on dump trucks and hauled them away from five large cooperative medical marijuana gardens in Jackson County, which lies at the tip of the Green Triangle of prime marijuana growing country in Northern California and Southern Oregon.

In October, increased registration fees enacted by the Oregon Legislature went into effect. They also included a new $50 fee to register someone else as your grower.

The U.S. attorney for Oregon, Amanda Marshall, is not willing to say the raids led to the decline in big medical marijuana gardens. She said the federal government is keeping up the pressure being exerted in Oregon and other states that have made marijuana legal for medical purposes.

She is now focused on the rising number of medical marijuana dispensaries, which are not specifically authorized in Oregon. Since June the number of dispensaries identified by federal agents in Oregon has jumped from 70 to 170, she said.

"We are identifying dispensaries that are selling marijuana," she said. "Then we are making sure they have adequate notice and an opportunity to do the right thing. Then we are moving forward to complete the investigation where they haven't chosen to do the right thing."

She said agents are warning building owners and dispensary operators they could forfeit their property.

As for big-time growers, Ray Myers of the Rogue Area Drug Enforcement team in Grants Pass said raids have had an impact.

"They are going back to the way they were doing it before, starting to separate it out from the monster grows," he said.

Growers and medical marijuana advocates say the risk of losing crops and property or even going to prison has had a chilling effect.

"There are not a lot of ways for people to do this completely legal, so if they are not willing to tread in that gray area, this is not for them," said James Bowman, widely considered the largest and most outspoken grower in the state.

He was not raided last year. This year, he plans to plant about 400 plants this year for 200 patients a third the number of plants he could raise but enough to give patients the 1.5 pounds allowed by law. He said he wants to minimize the risk of coming under scrutiny by authorities wondering what he does with the excess.

The fee increase is likely another factor. Oregon Health Authority figures show the number of patients dropped 5 percent from 58,311 on Oct. 18 to 55,167 on April 1.

The agency's figures show the total number of grow sites is largely static at about 35,500.

But the number of sites for one patient grew by 5 percent, from 24,052 to 25,241.

Meanwhile, the number of sites serving five or more patients dropped 26 percent, from 1,694 to 1,258.

The decline was even bigger for sites serving 10 or more patients. It went from 241 to 153, a drop of 36 percent. For sites growing for 15 or more patients, it went from 53 to 24, a drop of 55 percent.

The increasing number of grow sites for one patient likely reflects the inability of patients to find a qualified grower, advocates said. Patients have to list a grow site when they register, so they list themselves if they have no one else.

Lori Duckworth, who grows for herself and two other people and directs the advocacy group Southern Oregon NORML, said growers who saw their crops seized last year tell her they will plant again, but their gardens will be smaller.

"They have split up, are relocating, and doing smaller gardens," she said.

She said that means less legally grown pot for patients, and more bought from the black market.

Federal agents raided five large outdoor medical marijuana gardens in Jackson County last year, starting in August and running into October. It was part of a nationwide crackdown on medical marijuana based on evidence people were using state laws as cover to grow pot for the black market.

A June 29 memo signed by Deputy U.S. Attorney General James M. Cole said agents should not waste their time on individuals such as cancer patients using medical marijuana, but "prosecution of significant traffickers of illegal drugs, including marijuana, remains a core priority."

So far in Oregon, no public indictments have come out, and no forfeiture proceedings have been initiated, Marshall confirmed.

Though the growers all claimed they were within state limits of six mature plants per patient, federal authorities raided them. The acting U.S. attorney at the time, Dwight Holton, said the raids were based on evidence that marijuana grown in Oregon for medical use was being sold illegally in states as far away as Florida.

Raids on indoor grows in Oregon showed 30 percent of the 15,078 plants eradicated were from medical marijuana sites, said Chris Gibson, director of the Oregon High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program.

Marshall said evidence continues to mount showing medical marijuana grown in Oregon is sold out of state, and growers with large amounts of cash.

"This isn't about sick people smoking pot," she said. "This is about organized crime, tax evasion, and big business."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.