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Growing alarm

A letter from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions asking Congress to allow him to crack down on medical marijuana has sparked outrage and dismay among local dispensary owners and growers.

"It would be suicide politically to do it," said Michael Monarch, owner of Green Valley Wellness in Talent. "I don't know where he's going with it."

Monarch, who is licensed to produce and sell cannabis to both recreational and medical marijuana patients, said he doesn't know of any dispensary owner or legitimate grower who would send products into the black market or ship across state lines.

"Who the hell is doing that?" Monarch said. "That's insanity for any dispensary to do that."

Sessions' letter to Congress in May was reported by MassRoots Monday and verified by the Washington Post. The attorney general has asked that federal protections for prosecution be lifted for states that offer medical marijuana.

Under the 2014 Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, the current protections prevent the Justice Department from using federal funds to stop states "from implementing their own state laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession or cultivation of medical marijuana." 

Sessions said the amendment inhibits his ability to enforce the Controlled Substances Act, which lists marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug in the same category as heroin. 

Even though dispensaries have to follow strict regulations in Oregon, a January Oregon State Police draft report raises concerns about a growing black market in which marijuana products are being shipped out of the state.

Jackson, Multnomah, Josephine, Lane, Deschutes and Washington counties were cited in the report as top sources for the marijuana black market. Also, Portland, Medford, Eugene and Grants Pass had a strong connection to black markets in other states where marijuana hasn't been legalized, mostly in the Midwest and East Coast.

Medford police Deputy Chief Brett Johnson said the black market is an outgrowth of the abundant supply of marijuana in prime growing locations in Southern Oregon.

"It's a problem here, and one that we address," he said. "It's no secret that MADGE (Medford Area Drug and Gang Enforcement Team) keeps working black market cases."

The black market generally is shipping marijuana products out of Jackson County to other states where recreational or medical marijuana is illegal.

While cases involving illegal marijuana grows and out-of-state sales are important, MADGE also deals with other drug crimes, including methamphetamine, opioids and an increase in heroin use, Johnson said.

Brie Malarkey, owner of Breeze Botanicals in Gold Hill and Ashland, said she thought the federal government would be wasting its time going after legitimate growers and dispensaries.

Malarkey's businesses are involved in growing operations and recreational and medical sales, all of which are licensed and regulated by the state. Many local dispensary owners are involved in production and sales, which are overseen by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.

"It's very, very tough to be a legal, law-abiding business here in Oregon, with a lot of bureaucracy, a lot of working with state agencies, a lot of compliance for consumer health," Malarkey said.

She said those who are engaged in the black market evade taxes, and their workers are not protected by government regulations. Malarkey said the federal government should focus its energies on the black market.

"If Jeff Sessions wants to go after the low-hanging fruit of the easily accessible law-abiding business, then I just think that's a huge waste of government resources," Malarkey said.

Clay Bearnson, owner of Oregon Farmacy in Medford, said he doesn't think Washington has the political will to go after medical marijuana, citing polls that show strong support for it throughout the nation.

"I would hope the representatives from 29 states in the country, which have approved recreational or medical marijuana, would say 'no,'" said Bearnson, who is also a Medford city councilor.

Bearnson took issue with Sessions for trying to lump the legalization of marijuana in with the opiate epidemic. He said medical marijuana has helped many patients avoid turning to opiate prescriptions for pain relief.

At his store, Bearnson said he does get lots of customers from states with more restrictive marijuana laws, including Florida and Alabama, where Sessions lives. In Oregon, anyone older than 21 is allowed to purchase marijuana in the state from a licensed store.

Also a licensed marijuana grower, Bearnson said the federal government would be better served going after illegal operations.

"I think the focus on enforcement should be on those doing it illegally on BLM land and who are shipping it out of state," Bearnson said.

— Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

Medford City Councilor Clay Bearnson waters marijuana plants Wednesday at his Oregon Farmacy in Medford. Bearnson says there isn't enough political will in Washington to crack down on states that have legalized marijuana. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]