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Oregon Master Gardeners mum on legal pot

EUGENE — Come July, adults legally can grow up to four marijuana plants in their homes.

But they won't be able to turn to a corps of highly educated gardening coaches for formal growing advice.

The Oregon State University Extension Service has reminded its volunteer Master Gardeners of its policy that forbids them from offering advice or referrals on the cultivation, care and use of marijuana. The policy was enacted in 2012.

Pot "is still federally regulated, and we still do get federal funding and no one wants to do anything that jeopardizes those funds," said Brooke Edmunds, an OSU assistant professor who coordinates the Extension Service program in Benton, Lane and Linn counties.

OSU sent out the reminder earlier this week in the wake of voter approval of Measure 91, which legalizes personal possession and cultivation of marijuana for adults ages 21 and older.

Edmunds printed the policy in an internal newsletter that goes out to master gardeners in Lane County. There are about 400 Master Gardeners, both active and inactive, in the county.

Master Gardeners pay to receive their training from the Extension Service and then volunteer as community experts on many things agricultural. Master Gardeners are supposed to follow a code of conduct when they represent themselves as being part of the program. The code requires them to follow policies adopted by the OSU Extension Service and Master Gardener program.

It is unclear if they would be violating the code if they provide advice on marijuana on their own time.

The policy bars them from providing medical advice, answering questions or offering recommendations on managing pastures, or identifying mushrooms unless working with an expert on fungus.

Edmunds said Master Gardeners occasionally receive inquiries about marijuana and they could see more once household cultivation of marijuana becomes legal next summer.

Greg Byers, a 63-year-old Eugene resident, has had to walk a fine line as a Master Gardener for the past year and as a medical marijuana patient and grower since 2000.

The state's medical marijuana program lets a registered patient or his or her grower possess up to six mature plants, 18 seedlings and 24 ounces of usable pot.

Growing marijuana carries a stigma that he'd like to see evaporate, he said, but he also doesn't want the Extension Service or the Master Gardeners program to be burdened with inquiries about pot.

Byers said he's had two inquiries from patients interested in growing marijuana. In both cases, he removed his name badge and stepped out of the Extension Service office to talk with them so he's no longer representing himself as a Master Gardener.

He figures that satisfies OSU policies.

"I take the responsibility on myself," he said.

The extension services in Colorado and Washington state, which legalized recreational marijuana before Oregon, have adopted similar policies. Washington bars personal cultivation of marijuana, but Colorado allows up to six plants per household.

"We can't go there," said Brian Clark, a spokesman for Washington State University, which runs the state's Extension Service. "It violates federal law, and we are a federally funded organization."

Steven Newman, a professor at Colorado State University and extension specialist in commercial greenhouse production, said in an email he regularly receives inquiries about growing marijuana. He doesn't respond to them other than to give a polite reminder of the policy.

The university's general counsel has concluded if any of its extension employees or master gardeners help growers, "they will be acting outside the scope of their employee (or) volunteer role and assume personal liability for any legal action that may be taken against them," he said.

Geoff Sugerman, lobbyist for the state's marijuana growers, said the stance by the OSU Extension Service with regard to the Master Gardeners is unfortunate because it's "an excellent source of information for people who are growing and gardening."

Sugerman said he thinks "it's a stretch" to say the program or extension service would put their federal funding at risk for offering advice on marijuana growing, but he understands the restriction.

Sugerman said he began growing marijuana in the past year and found it's a hardy but finicky plant. The plant is susceptible to mildew and mold, and growers need to be vigilant about providing the plants proper lighting while cultivating indoors.

"It's not as easy as sticking a seed or plant in the ground and watching it grow," he said.

Anthony Johnson, chief petitioner of Measure 91, said he recognizes federal law "is certainly still an issue," and his organization would continue to work for sensible state and federal policies.

He said he's unaware of any organization planning to offer would-be growers advice or training starting next year, but "if there is a demand, someone will certainly work to meet it."