EUGENE — For as long as people have sold marijuana on the black market, pot dealers and growers have gone to great lengths to keep their stashes hidden.
Now police say some Oregon marijuana farmers are taking advantage of a relatively new tool — a state-issued medical marijuana card — to help conceal their criminal activity.
"For some growers, the card adds to a hoped-for ruse. They're hoping that if somebody sees their marijuana and checks it out, (police) will think it's a legal grow," said Oregon State Police Sgt. Ted Phillips, who supervises Lane County's Interagency Drug Enforcement Team.
Police say they've noticed a recent uptick in the number of pot busts involving growers who have received state permission to cultivate a small amount of marijuana for medical use but whose true intention is to grow much more than the law allows, then harvest the buds and sell them illegally on the street for a hefty profit.
State police officials compiled statistics earlier this year indicating that roughly one in five marijuana investigations initiated by state troopers since 2006 has involved state-licensed pot farmers.
Phillips and his team of local detectives uncovered an outrageous example last month when they served search warrants on three adjacent homes on Wilkes Drive, in north Eugene's Santa Clara area. They discovered more than 1,100 plants growing inside.
The man who rented the modest homes just a block from Madison Middle School had permission under Oregon Medical Marijuana Program rules to grow up to 24 plants for medicinal purposes.
The renter who has not yet been charged in the case allegedly admitted to police that his crops produced 13 pounds of marijuana each month, which he would sell for $3,200 per pound.
The Wilkes Drive bust is just one in a series of local cases police worked in October and November that focused on state-licensed growers who allegedly abused that right and attempted to use it as a cover for a criminal enterprise.
The list includes a Lorane-area raid carried out by Eugene police who seized 48 enormous plants, most of which stood 8 feet tall and measured 10 feet in diameter, and several pounds of processed pot from a property registered as a grow site for three medical marijuana patients.
Detectives from other local agencies have investigated similar incidents this fall in Springfield and Elmira, as well as in Cottage Grove where a convenience store owner stands accused of selling pot at her business that her husband and a friend allegedly grew at their homes, both of which are state-registered grow sites.
"We've always had abuse in the (medical marijuana) act," said OSP Lt. Mike Dingeman, who heads the agency's drug enforcement section. "It just seems that lately especially in the last few months it's at the point where we feel it's out of control."
Dingeman and other police officers contend that rampant abuse of the state's voter-approved program is occurring because it lacks any oversight to ensure that card-carrying growers don't break the law.
After the state issues people cards allowing them to grow or consume marijuana for medicinal purposes, no one from the program checks to see whether they produce more than the state allows, or sell it to people who aren't approved medical users.
"It's basically an honor system," Dingeman said. "The health department administers a card and that's it. What we're saying is that if marijuana is going to be a person's medicine, then we need to find a way to treat it like one and regulate it."
Officials in charge of the medical marijuana program say they can't and don't even try to determine how many medical marijuana users and growers are violating the law. No one in the agency keeps track of how many card holders are being found by various law enforcement agencies to be exceeding grow limits or selling their pot illegally.
State law doesn't require the program officials to do that type of monitoring.
"We just act as a registration program," said Aaron Cossel, who has worked as a program analyst with the state medical marijuana office for the past eight years.
"We do no monitoring of grow sites, and do not have any authority to police it," he said. "Law enforcement has to enforce the law."
Cossel, the state program's senior member, added that, "Obviously, we don't like to see any abuse in the program. We wish everyone would follow the letter of the law."
People who get medical marijuana cards from the state can grow plants themselves or have someone else do it. State officials conduct a background check on every grower listed by a patient. Anyone with a felony drug conviction within the past five years is ineligible to cultivate pot as part of the program, Cossel said.
Growers are permitted to produce marijuana for up to four patients at a time. Each patient is authorized to store up to 24 ounces of usable pot, while growers can have a maximum of six adult, flowering plants and 18 immature plants per patient.
The state revokes a user's or a grower's medical marijuana card when officials in charge of the program receive from a judge a court order to do so, in connection with a criminal case.
Program officials don't know the number of revocations, but Cossel said it's very rare that a judge asks the state to yank a card.
Patients who are responsible for providing officials with information about where they intend to get their medical pot can change their listed grower at any time, without explanation.
"They don't need to inform us why they're making that decision," Cossel said.
Proponents of the state's medical marijuana program say that police overstate the level of abuse occurring in it. Police admit that much of their evidence on the issue is anecdotal.
"My own point of view is that considering the numbers (of medical marijuana patients and growers), the level of abuse has been relatively small," said John Sajo, a Douglas County resident who serves as executive director of Voter Power. The nonprofit group is credited with helping draft and pass the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act in 1998.
More than 54 percent of voters supported the ballot measure that made Oregon the second U.S. state to approve a medical pot law, two years after California did the same. Eleven more states have since followed.
Meanwhile, the number of Oregonians who have since gained a physician's recommendation to use medical marijuana and were subsequently awarded a state-issued card allowing it has ballooned in the past 11 years.
As of Oct. 1, 23,873 patients were registered with the state, with 6,216 more applications pending final approval. People with pending applications are allowed under state law to use medical marijuana, Cossel said. There are about 15,000 medical marijuana grow sites in Oregon, operated either by the user or an approved grower.
Demand for medical marijuana cards has surged in recent months.
Between Oct. 1, 2008, and Sept. 30 of this year, state Department of Human Services officials received 13,083 new applications from people who received a doctor's recommendation to use medical marijuana, far more than anyone expected.
"At first, I think people thought that maybe 500 patients would apply annually," Cossel said. "No one anticipated how many people would want to be in the program."
Sajo said a ballot measure initiated by his group that appears headed to the November 2010 ballot could help clean up some problems plaguing the state program.
The proposal known as Initiative 28 would expand the program to create a system in which state-licensed pot growers would distribute their crops to dispensaries regulated by the health department. Medical marijuana patients could buy their drugs from the dispensaries, instead of having to find a personal grower or figure out how to grow pot themselves before receiving state approval to use pot for medicinal purposes.
Under the current system, patients can pay their growers for supplies and electricity required to power indoor pot gardens, but are forbidden to pay producers for the marijuana itself.
Sajo said some growers who sign up for the current program with good intentions end up selling marijuana to middlemen and recreational users because they're not being paid by patients for their work.
If Voter Power's new initiative is approved, "Farmers would be able to be paid, and they'd have a strong incentive to follow the rules," Sajo said.
"We'd be talking about a highly regulated system," he said.
Sajo knows that some people who gain state permission to grow medical marijuana have no plans of producing it for any medical purpose. But he argues that those people would grow pot for profit whether or not the state's program existed.
"Marijuana has been big business in Oregon for decades," he said. "There is some overlap of illegal growers trying to hide behind the medical marijuana law. But if you took that law away, there wouldn't be fewer illegal growers."
It may be true that some career pot farmers simply obtain a medical marijuana card for whatever value it may bestow. For example, police earlier this year raided a north Eugene rental house and seized 700 pot plants there. The renter had state permission to grow 24 plants for medical purposes. According to a landlord who had previously rented to that same tenant, the individual several years earlier had grown hundreds of pot plants at another house.
Cases such as that one damage the state program's credibility, said Dan Koozer, who heads the Willamette Valley chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
"It's something that's horrifying to us," Koozer said. "Any time you're pro-something and you hear about someone abusing it, you just cringe."
Like Sajo, Koozer believes that a majority of growers licensed by the state to grow medical marijuana are operating within the law.
Dingeman, the state police lieutenant, wouldn't say if he agrees with that.
"That's not something I would speculate on," he said. "The fact is that there's no way to know because there's no way to check."
Cossel guesses that a good deal of the surge in applications for the program this year is a direct result of the Obama administration's announcement that federal officials would stop arresting medical marijuana users in the 13 states that have programs. Under the federal Controlled Substances Act, marijuana remains within the category of drugs most tightly restricted by the federal government.
Since Oregon's medical marijuana program began, more than 3,000 Oregon doctors have recommended patients use pot to alleviate a variety of maladies.
"More people feel comfortable with medical marijuana now, and I think more doctors are comfortable approving patients," Cossel said.
Although police suspect that program abuse is high, Dingeman said he knows plenty of people have legitimate medical reasons to use marijuana, some of whom he said have complained to police that they've been shorted by growers who sell most of their pot on the black market.
"We often hear of people victimized by their growers," Dingeman said. "Patients say they're not getting their medicine because too much is going out the back door. It's just another example of how some people are using the (medical marijuana) act as a cover for illicit activity."