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Too much temptation

Lori Duckworth remembers touring Brian's Green Thumb Farm near Central Point, awed at the towering cannabis plants growing for medical marijuana patients who entrusted farmer Brian Simmons with their medicine.

"I'd stand there and wonder what their harvest looks like," says Duckworth, executive director of Southern Oregon NORML, a medical marijuana advocacy center and dispensary located in Medford. "There would be thousands of pounds of marijuana if they cut it down all at once."

At the U.S. District Court building next door to Duckworth's Sixth Street office Thursday, federal prosecutors in Simmons' drug trial confirmed Duckworth's estimate — thousands of pounds of marijuana grown under the auspices of the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program came off the farm and was allegedly sold illegally on the black market.

Duckworth believes as many as 15 percent of OMMP growers are illegally trafficking marijuana, drawing embarrassment to the program, increased scrutiny from law enforcement and harm to innocent cardholders who lose access to their medical marijuana when agents raid growers such as Simmons.

"We want to eradicate the illegal growers who have hijacked our program," Duckworth says. "Unfortunately, some of those hijackers are friends of mine."

Federal prosecutors are using a combination of criminal prosecutions such as the Simmons case and federal civil forfeiture cases to attack the proceeds of black market marijuana and dent what they see is the growing abuse of OMMP by pot peddlers.

Legitimate medical marijuana growers and illegal traffickers are sometimes hard to distinguish when their plants are in the ground because growers can operate in the open, thanks to the OMMP. But when their crop is ready for harvest, police say, many traffickers expose themselves by shipping marijuana out of state and waiting for their cash to come in.

High-quality Southern Oregon plants can produce up to 10 pounds of marijuana each, enough to satisfy the medical needs of cardholders, with plenty left over that growers are supposed to destroy.

With East Coast buyers offering as much as $7,000 a pound for Oregon weed, the temptation to sell the leftovers is a powerful one.

"Once you get past the felonies, you're talking pretty good money," says Medford police Lt. Brett Johnson, who heads the Medford Area Drug and Gang Enforcement task force that targets marijuana traffickers.

MADGE investigators see a variety of OMMP abusers, Johnson says. They include growers who join the program strictly for commercial operation, small-time growers who sell their excess, and even former methamphetamine and heroin dealers entranced by greater profits and less risk, Johnson says.

"We see people who simply see it as a better business model," Johnson says. "It's safer than meeting a guy in a parking lot.

"It's not surprising," he says. "There's no Oregon Medical Methamphetamine Program."

Duckworth says legitimate OMMP cardholders are stuck in the middle of the growers-versus-police chess game, with one side harming the program and the other looking to marginalize it with high-profile raids.

"I believe (police) intend to make the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program look as bad as they can in the eyes of regular citizens who are not in the program," Duckworth says.

"Law enforcement is not the overseers of the program, but in Jackson and Josephine counties, they think they are," she says.

Duckworth and Johnson both say OMMP needs revisions to curb abuses, and medical marijuana advocate Leland Berger believes he has a solution.

Berger, a Portland lawyer, says Oregon should license and regulate marijuana dispensaries that can take the excess pot that tempts otherwise legit growers to cross the line.

Growers then could sell to dispensaries at a fraction of what they could get on the black market, but without the risk of jail or seizure, and patients could have access to it, Berger says.

"I think the growers would prefer that, and I think the patients would," Berger says. "Patients need safe, affordable access to medical cannabis.

"I think Oregonians, if presented with a proper regulatory scheme, would agree to it," Berger says.

Johnson says Berger's plan will never fly as long as marijuana possession remains a federal crime. That would mean state employees would be asked to violate federal law and risk arrest by a Drug Enforcement Administration agent every minute they are at work.

"Tell me how you get there from here," Johnson says.

Berger says you can do it by looking at history.

Some states have refused to enforce federal marijuana laws for possession of small quantities — much like they backed away from alcohol prohibition. And two states, Colorado and Washington, have legalized personal-use marijuana possession.

"That's how alcohol prohibition ended, and I feel we're swimming through the end of the cannabis prohibition," Berger says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

The Drug Enforcement Agency is removing bags of marijuana from Brian's Green Thumb Farm 300 block of East Gregory Road in Central Point 10-5-2011 Bob Pennell / Mail Tribune photo - Bob Pennell