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Medical pot gardens on the rise

Drug-enforcement officers flying over Jackson County in search of marijuana have found plenty of large, lush plants this summer ' plants they can't do anything about.

Increasingly, when officials spot growing marijuana during a fly-over or get a complaint from neighbors, they discover the property owner has the state's approval to grow medical marijuana, said Lt. Dewey Patten, commander of Jackson County Narcotics Enforcement Team.

— This year we've found more gardens that have medical marijuana cards associated with them, he said. It's the thing of the future.

In Jackson County, 335 people had state-issued medical marijuana cards at the end of August, said Mary Leverette, director of the state's medical marijuana program.

Under the program, each patient with a card can have three mature marijuana plants, three immature plants and a small amount of ready-to-use cannabis.

Typically about 60 percent of the patients authorize a caregiver to grow marijuana for them, she said. The state law doesn't limit how many patients a caregiver can grow marijuana for.The state Department of Human Services, which administers the medical marijuana program, won't disclose the number or locations of authorized growing sites in the county, Leverette said.Patten said initially when officials discovered marijuana on private land, they would track down and contact the owner, only to find that person had state approval for the garden. Now officers first go to the human services department, which will verify whether an address is on the authorized growers list, he explained. Officers can inspect authorized gardens to ensure the growers are complying with the medical marijuana law.

LeRoy Burkhart, a retired sheriff's deputy, has taken to the skies over the county for the past six summers as a marijuana spotter for JACNET. He has seen an increase in the number of authorized gardens this year, while the number of gardens hidden in forests has decreased.

We see less and less in the woods, so that's good, he said.

He credits regular surveillance and Oregon's medical marijuana law, which took effect in 1999, with limiting the major growers in the woods.

Most commercial growers have cards now and grow it in their backyards, Burkhart said.

Patten said when the county added aerial surveillance to its anti-drug force years ago, officers regularly spotted large marijuana plants in big gardens. As growers wised up to the eye in the sky, they focused on raising small, low-growing plants that were easy to hide. Now big plants are common again because gardens growing medical marijuana don't need to hide, he said.

Still, not every grower has gone legit.

Last week, officials pulled more than 70 marijuana plants from remote public forestlands near Prospect, Patten said.

Aerial surveillance started in early August, when surrounding hills dried out enough to make illegal, irrigated crops stand out. It will continue at least through this month, he said. The busy season for illegal harvests and the officials working to stop them runs through October, he said.

Patten doesn't have a preliminary total yet for the number of gardens discovered or the amount of marijuana seized this year. Last year, JACNET seized 482 plants and 19,044 grams of processed marijuana. The year before, it seized 291 plants and 3,726 grams of processed marijuana.