JACKSONVILLE — Recent raids by federal drug agents who seized medical marijuana by the dump truck load have rankled some Oregon lawmakers who say federal authorities are overstepping their authority.
During a tour Thursday of one of Oregon's biggest and most sophisticated medical marijuana grow sites, Reps. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, and Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, said they believe some growers are abusing Oregon's medical marijuana law, but law enforcement should be left to Oregon as a states' right under the Constitution.
"It is not appropriate for the federal government to come in and assume authority just because they have the power to do so," Richardson said.
In a tougher stance by the Obama administration, federal authorities have been cracking down on medical marijuana nationwide, particularly in California, where landlords recently were warned they could lose their property if they don't kick out growers and dispensaries.
Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland, a doctor who has about 30 patients using medical marijuana in place of opiates, likened the situation to federal pressure against Oregon's assisted suicide law, adding he hoped state Attorney General John Kroger would take legal action to settle the differences in state and federal law.
"These people are caught in the middle," he said of growers.
Since Oregon voters made it legal to grow marijuana for medical use in 1996, federal eradication efforts in Oregon have focused on Mexican drug cartels growing huge plantations on public lands. This month, federal agents changed course and started raiding large medical marijuana sites in Jackson County, hauling away hundreds of plants. The third raid was Friday.
So far, no one has been charged criminally, and court documents remain sealed.
U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton has said federal law clearly trumps state law, and the raids were prompted by evidence that medical marijuana from Oregon was increasingly being sold in other states.
Richardson and Bates said it was unlikely that medical marijuana would make it into the four-week special legislative session this February, due to more pressing budget issues, but that the regular session in 2013 would be a good time to address the issue.
Spokesman Tony Green said the state attorney general had no comment on the issue at this point, but Green noted the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on the issue.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2005 in a 6-3 decision that the federal government can prosecute home-grown marijuana, even in states that have legalized medical use.
Kroger has defended the right of medical marijuana users to have concealed handgun permits, though federal law prohibits the sale of firearms to drug abusers.
The high court upheld Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law in 2006, rejecting a Bush administration attempt to punish doctors who help terminally ill patients die.
Richardson, Esquivel, Bates and Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, were invited by medical marijuana grower James Bowman to the farm he runs in the Applegate Valley wine country.
Bowman, who did time in federal prison for growing marijuana before Oregon voters made medical marijuana legal, told the lawmakers he would like to see states and the federal government change marijuana's classification as a controlled substance so that growers could make a profit, generate jobs, and export marijuana for medical use to other states where it does not grow as well.
"You want to pay $30,000 a year to keep us in prison, or $40,000 a year to work," he said.
Bowman said he had started small, growing for himself and a couple others, but over time demand grew as people learned about the high quality of his pot, and his ethical treatment of patients. The farm grows about 200 plants a year to serve about 100 patients who sign a contract and choose from a menu of strains to treat their specific ailment.
Troy Morris of M-Research in Corvallis told the lawmakers there are 87 different kinds of active ingredient, known as cannabinoids, in marijuana, and his company was cataloguing them all so doctors could prescribe them more effectively.
Oregon's law allows growers to charge patients for expenses, such as fertilizer and electricity, but not for labor, which Bowman said is the biggest expense he faces in growing about 200 plants to order to meet the specific medical needs of about 100 patients. He figures it costs about $88 per ounce, or about $1,400 per pound just in expenses, without counting labor. Workers on the farm are volunteers with medical marijuana cards who work in return for the 1 1/2 ounces a year of marijuana allowed by law.
Asked how he makes a living and covers expenses, Bowman offered a vague explanation about how a few patients subsidize the others through donations and voluntary reimbursements.
"There is still abuse in the system," Esquivel said. "I don't think this is one of the places we have to worry about."