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Weed whackers

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Articles - April 2014
Thursday, March 27, 2014

0414 pot mg 0744As of March 7, 281 dispensaries had applied to register with the state, the majority in Multnomah County. In Portland neighborhoods like Irvington and Hawthorne, nondescript dispensary storefronts are often distinguishable only by their most conspicuous marking: a green cross that owes all but its color to the Red Cross logo. From the outside, they look like veterinary clinics. From the inside, many resemble a dentist’s office.

The sheer number of dispensaries cropping up in Portland hints at the entrepreneurial chord that has been struck by the state regulations. But the atmosphere in rural Oregon is distinctly different. 

Consider J’s Green House, a medical marijuana dispensary in Roseburg. There is no green cross, and no mistaking it for a veterinary clinic or dentist’s office. Instead, crossing a set of train tracks that run parallel to the highway leads to an empty lot, the final resting place of 10 small, moldering boats. In the distance sits a pair of large unmarked hangars.

Its anonymity is hardly surprising, considering the city of Roseburg has never approved a business license for J’s Green House or any other medical marijuana dispensary, according to Koree Tate, an assistant at the Office of the City Manager. 

Another unlicensed Roseburg dispensary is operated by “Mary,” a middle-aged woman who works alone, helping people manage their pain the way she once helped her husband, after he was diagnosed with cancer some years ago. “I know we’re listed as a dispensary online, but we really aren’t a dispensary,” she says. “I just help connect patients with growers who can get them what they need. I’m only a middleman.”

What Mary is in the middle of is the legal business of providing marijuana to OMMP cardholders and the illegal business of cultivating marijuana plants. Oregon is the fourth-largest indoor-cannabis-producing state, and the 10th-largest cannabis-producing state overall. But paradoxically, much of the potent crop that the state is famous for producing ends up in out-of-state illicit markets rather than in legal dispensaries. It is equally ironic that the legitimization of the marijuana business has yet to yield positive returns in places like Roseburg, which sits at the northern edge of the banana belt, where the agreeable climate and soil nurture many of the state’s more than 100 outdoor-cannabis farms.

This is because cannabis is still considered a Schedule 1 drug under federal law, which doesn’t differentiate between crops destined for legal or illegal markets. In the eyes of the federal government, it’s all the same, so doing business out in the open is risky. James Bowman, owner of Jackson County’s High Hopes Farm, found this out the hard way in late 2012, when agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency raided his operation. According to The Oregonian, Bowman’s farm was set to deliver medical marijuana to more patients than any other single source in the state.

Growers can also run afoul of federal tax laws, since, under federal law, only the cost of materials can be accounted for. In other words, the labor costs associated with growing marijuana are illegal, even for those growing plants on behalf of registered OMMP cardholders. This often leads farmers, like Bowman, to pay field hands in product, further drawing the ire of authorities.

These problems will be alleviated under the registry system, which will allow, for the first time, the honest accounting of labor in growing medical marijuana, according to dispensary operators. Operators will be required to keep detailed records, which the state will check during a regular annual inspection. Dispensary owners will also trade the watchful eye of the Oregon State Drug Enforcement Agency for two state inspectors assigned to the registry program.

But Southern Oregon’s pot farms face other threats — competition from rapidly expanding indoor-grow operations in cities like Portland and Eugene.


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