Southern Oregon's latest cash crop
Marijuana became legal in Oregon only recently, but its legacy in Oregon has deep roots.
Marijuana’s long road to legalization culminated in Ballot Measure 91, passed by voters in 2014. Now anyone 21 and older can possess up to 8 ounces of marijuana and grow up to four plants. Most medical marijuana dispensaries in the county have also begun selling recreational marijuana.
In 1998, Oregon voters approved medical marijuana under the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act, opening the floodgates to pot production, particularly in Southern Oregon because of its long growing season.
After 1998, illegal grow sites still dotted the valley, and every summer law enforcement swooped in and scooped up bumper crops. Even after medical marijuana became legal, grows in forests and large tracts of land were routinely seized, and local law enforcement warned of drug cartels.
In Southern Oregon, the center of pot production has been in rural Williams, and Laird Funk has been one of the most outspoken proponents of legalization.
The 70-year-old Williams resident said, “I’ve been growing lawfully since ’98, and I may have done some research earlier.”
When he arrived in Williams in 1977, he said it was pretty common to see marijuana growing behind someone’s house.
At the time, the Josephine County sheriff wasn’t particularly concerned about marijuana crops because he had more pressing concerns.
“He figured these long-haired people who smoke marijuana are a lot easier to deal with than the drunks,” Funk said.
When aerial surveillance and civil forfeiture became common, cannabis growers moved their crops off their properties and into the woods to avoid detection.
Funk began going to the Legislature in 1988, making his pitch for reform of marijuana laws in the state. He eventually became one of the leading voices pushing for marijuana legalization.
Marijuana was legal in Oregon during the early years after statehood was declared in 1859. Once the Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act of 1935 was passed, Oregon joined the rest of the nation in making marijuana illegal.
The Oregon Decriminalization Bill of 1973 abolished criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. As a result, possession of up to an ounce in Oregon was a violation punishable by a fine of $500 to $1,000. Oregon became the first state to decriminalize marijuana.
In 2004, Oregon voters rejected a ballot measure that would have allowed retail sales. But in 2005, the Legislature increased the possession limits for medical marijuana to 24 ounces, with the ability to grow six mature plants and 18 immature plants.
Another ballot measure in 2010 to legalize retail sales of pot was rejected by voters.
In 2012, the Legislature approved a medical marijuana dispensary system. The Legislature further decriminalized cannabis, making possession of more than an ounce but less than 4 ounces a misdemeanor. It previously was considered a felony. A law that suspended a driver’s license for possession of more than an ounce was repealed.
Around this time, cannabis supporters tested the limits of marijuana laws in Oregon, sometimes running afoul of police.
In May 2013, a highly publicized raid on a local marijuana dispensary led to the arrest of a local couple on racketeering and money laundering charges.
Jackson County Circuit Judge Lorenzo Mejia in 2014 dismissed a slew of racketeering and money-laundering charges against Laura “Lori” Duckworth and her husband, Leland A. Duckworth.
Mejia found each of the Duckworths guilty of a single count of felony delivery of marijuana as part of a plea bargain. A previous indictment against Lori Duckworth on another 22 charges was dismissed, and an indictment against her husband for another 27 charges was also dismissed.
The Duckworths each received 11 months' probation, after which their felony charge could be reduced to a misdemeanor.
Despite initial opposition to dispensaries in Jackson County, more than a dozen have now opened, and law enforcement officials have said they’ve seen few problems with them.
Since legalization, the Legislature, along with the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Liquor Control Commission, has created a regulatory apparatus that will track recreational marijuana from seed to sale.
As of January 2016, the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program reported, 77,520 people had medical marijuana cards. Jackson County had the second-highest number of marijuana patients in the state at 9,517. Multnomah County had 12,989 patients, followed by Lane County with 8,241 cardholders and Josephine County with 6,503.
Jackson County also had the second-largest number of cannabis growers in the state at 5,949, with Multnomah County at 6,985.
With cannabis now legal, marijuana is being grown throughout Jackson and Josephine counties, and many of the grow sites with the tell-tale black fabric fences are easily visible from roads.
In Williams, which is considered one of the biggest pot-growing areas in the state, Funk said there haven’t been reports of crops getting ripped off for many years.
Funk said he suspects that Mexican drug cartels started becoming a problem only about five years ago, but with legalization the cartels have moved on to more lucrative drugs such as heroin.
Funk said the attitudes toward marijuana have changed, and a new crop of pot activists has taken up where Funk left off.
“Until it became lawful for medicine in 1998, there was a lot still growing in the woods,” Funk said. “But the draw of doing it in the woods started to diminish.”
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/reporterdm.