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Swimming in Weed

From above, the bushy green plants in backyard after backyard resemble English topiary gardens, neat and tidy.

But a closer look at the gardens hidden from passersby behind tall fences tell a different story: cannabis crops mushrooming under the umbrella of the 1998 Oregon Medical Marijuana Act.

A helicopter flight this month with U.S. Rep. Greg Walden revealed numerous cannabis crops growing adjacent to homes in every community in Jackson and Josephine counties, ostensibly to service the area's more than 7,000 medical marijuana cardholders.

"Shocked and stunned — I had absolutely no idea the breadth and scope of these backyard grows," exclaimed Walden.

"I cannot imagine most Oregonians who voted for this law and are sympathetic toward people who are sick and in pain would believe what has happened as a result of this law," added Walden, 53, a Republican from Hood River.

whose 2nd Congressional District includes Jackson County and a portion of eastern Josephine County. "I don't think people understand how out of control this has gotten."

But down on the ground among his cannabis plants in the Ruch area, licensed marijuana grower James Bowman, 50, believes the pot patches are healthy indicators of Oregon's changing culture.

Although he acknowledges the 1998 law may need fine-tuning, he looks at it as an important turning point in state history.

"I think it's going fairly well — probably the best in the nation at the time when it was approved," he said.

"There is nothing people should be afraid of with this, no more than they should be afraid of the vineyards you see around here.

"We are a regular farm like any other," he added. "Cannabis should be considered a commodity like anything else."

The law allows medical marijuana cardholders to possess six mature plants, 18 starts smaller than 12 inches tall and 24 ounces of processed, usable marijuana.

It permits a caregiver to cultivate cannabis for up to four cardholding patients, allowing a registered caregiver to grow up to two dozen adult plants at a time. Growers say the law doesn't limit the number of growers who can work cooperatively.

For instance, Bowman has a medical marijuana card for himself and is a registered caregiver, meaning he can grow for up to four other patients. At his site, multiple caregivers are working together, growing cannabis for 70 patients.

"We have 70 patients, so that would allow us 350 budding plants to have at one time," he said, though he says his site always contains about 100 fewer plants than the legal limit to err on the side of caution. His site currently has fewer than 200 mature plants, he said.

Many police officers say the law has too many loopholes, and they question the legitimacy of most of the medical marijuana patches.

"We either have a lot of sick people or a huge abuse problem — I would say it's the latter," said Medford Police Deputy Chief Tim George.

"All the law enforcement officers in the state are shaking their heads over this situation," he added. "Nobody in law enforcement is arguing that cancer or glaucoma patients shouldn't have it if they need it. But most people don't need marijuana for medical reasons."

Noting that someone with a green thumb can grow a large plant that produces five to seven pounds of "high grade bud" worth some $2,500 a pound on the street, George said it wouldn't be unusual to produce a plant whose harvest exceeds $15,000.

"I don't want to sound callous about sick people, but this is really about the money," he said. "Our problem with law enforcement is how to keep track of all this. It's off the charts."

Like other police departments in the region, his officers regularly deal with medical marijuana growers who are out of compliance, he said, though statistics were not immediately available.

"I am swimming in weed," he said, describing it as a controlled substance that is out of control. George, an outspoken critic of the 1998 law, fears it will only get worse if Oregonians approve a measure on the Nov. 2 ballot that would establish medical marijuana dispensaries.

"You can't have a Vicodin tree in your backyard," he said, referring to a prescription pain medication. "This (1998) law was one of the biggest mistakes the state has ever made."

During his flight, Walden met with the seven county sheriffs in the region who are part of the Southern Oregon Multi-Agency Marijuana Eradication & Reclamation group organized by Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters.

The sheriffs, including Winters, told Walden that the marijuana issue is overtaxing law enforcement efforts. They also expressed concern that today's marijuana is much more powerful than your parents' pot back in their college days.

"Medical marijuana is a joke," said Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson in an interview with the Mail Tribune. "The amount of people who have those cards is ludicrous. My understanding is that only about four percent of the cardholders have legitimate ailments.

"This is creating a nightmare for law enforcement," he added. "Who is going to knock on all those doors to check if they are legal? It would take several full-time deputies just to do the checks. We don't have the resources for that."

His department frequently receives calls from people alleging that individual medical marijuana growers have too many plants, he said.

"When that happens, we have to take a deputy off another case to check it out," he said. "It's time-consuming."

Williams resident Laird Funk, 65, a longtime marijuana advocate and a member of the Oregon Department of Human Services' Advisory Committee on Medical Marijuana, doesn't believe growers purposefully ignore the law.

"I wouldn't be concerned even if they were," he said. "But I don't think anyone is stupid enough to overtly grow more than the limit."

Instead, he believes law enforcement agencies are going out of their way to find reasons to bust medical marijuana growers.

"I think people are cognizant of the fact police are still playing gotcha with sick people," he said.

Bowman, who said he hopes Walden will someday visit his medical marijuana operation in Ruch, said he understands the dilemma police face.

"I feel like the police are in an awkward spot," Bowman said. "The law is very gray so the police are left to make individual interpretations of it.

"The problem is you don't have a clear law that all the cops can follow," he said. "The Medford cops, they interpret a different way than the sheriff might. They see it from the traditional crime point of view. The cops have been addicted to the money they get from the war on drugs."

Bowman said he has no major issues with the enforcement being done by both Winters and Gilbertson in regard to the medical marijuana law.

In fact, the Jackson County Sheriff's Department helped avoid an "armed invasion" four years ago at his site, he said.

"They called us up out of the blue and said, 'Hey, we need to talk. We've got this information and we would like to prevent something bad from happening,' " he said, noting that several people had apparently planned an attempted theft of pot grown on his property.

"I'm really indebted to them and see that as the future of how we can all work together, rather than this rhetoric of 'how bad the cops are,' " he said.

However, theft isn't a paramount concern like it was just a few years ago, he said.

"Theft is still an issue but not as much because cannabis growing is becoming more prevalent," he said.

Although his property covers five acres, only two acres are in cultivation, he said. About 30 volunteers help care for the cannabis, he said.

"One of my concerns about the law is that none of the workers can legally be paid," he said. "The law specifically says all expenses can be reimbursed except for labor."

He would like to see that aspect of the law changed.

Bowman said he supports the eventual full legalization of marijuana.

"Take cannabis off the controlled substance list — alcohol, caffeine, cigarettes aren't on it," he said, although cautioning it should be used in moderation.

He also sees it as a potential major source of tax income for the state, as well as an employment opportunity for Oregonians.

"We grow better cannabis than anywhere else in the world — without a doubt," he said. "Southern Oregon is renowned for its cannabis, as well as its red wine."

He figures some three-dozen sites in the region, from Glendale south, could be used for processing centers.

"They could easily hire 100 people at each center," he said. "That would be new jobs right now. We're asking for the economy to be set free and let the Rogue Valley benefit from this to grow this industry.

"Let's go beyond the medical argument and go to legalization," he added.

Meanwhile, Bowman doesn't much like it when a helicopter flies overhead and hovers, apparently checking out his crop.

"And that's even though we are doing everything we can do to be legal," he said. "They fly 100 feet or so above us. You can see their faces. It makes you wonder what are we doing that deserves that kind of treatment. The law enforcement agencies need to use their resources on something else — gang intervention or whatever.

"But by the same token I like the fact they can use that technology so they aren't bugging us down here every other day," he added.

Walden, whose helicopter did not hover over Bowman's grow site, indicated he would take Bowman's invitation into consideration. However, the lawmaker is adamantly opposed to legalizing marijuana.

"Mark me down as old-fashioned, but I don't think that would be helpful to our communities or families," Walden said, who believes the use and production of cannabis is linked to other crimes.

"This is not the ditch weed of the '70s," he said.

"Somebody needs to do an independent review of this law so we can understand how the law is being used or misused," he said. "But it's clear there are very few prosecutions now of illegal backyard grows. It's the Wild West of marijuana out there now."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Marijuana gardens dot the landscape in Jackson and Josephine counties as seen from the air. They're among hundreds that have sprung up to service the area's 7,000 medical marijuana cardholders. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven