Medical marijuana plantation fires up in spring

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Jun 21, 2007
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The burnt end of a joint between his fingers and a white plastic lighter in his fist, James Bowman watched the half dozen young men, shirts off in the warm spring sun, shovels working to the beat of loud rock music, as they prepared the soil for the biggest medical marijuana plantation in Oregon.

It is springtime on The Farm, a cooperative in the heart of Applegate Valley wine country that will grow some 200 plants to supply about 70 card-carrying medical marijuana users.

Here, surrounded by wineries, bed and breakfasts, churches and a school, the legal side of marijuana operates in plain sight, visible to hang gliders soaring overhead, drivers on nearby roads, and viewers of Google Maps.

Over the winter volunteers have trimmed the dried buds from last year's crop, cut slips from mother plants, and rooted them in little plastic bags of potting soil now stacked against the side of a greenhouse. In June, they will plant the clones in circles of loam fed by plastic drip lines. Through summer, volunteers will wrap the heavy branches with duct tape to keep them from breaking. And under a harvest moon in October they will patrol the grounds with Tasers and pepper spray until it is time to bring in the bud.

It is all perfectly legal under state law as long as Bowman, his partners and volunteers don't get greedy or careless.

Because waiting are drug cops like Grants Pass Police Sgt. Ray Myers, part of the Rogue Area Drug Enforcement taskforce.

"The fact is that they can grow marijuana right under our nose,"' said Myers. "Until we catch them doing something illegal with it, there is nothing we can do about it."

If the state medical marijuana database shows a growth site as registered, the law doesn't allow police to even inspect crops without an invitation or probable cause of a crime. They can't troll through the list of legal sites, either. Still, police regularly bust medical marijuana growers, often after traffic stops when the officer smells marijuana. If there's a load in the trunk, the grower must be able to prove it belongs to those with medical marijuana cards.

Sometimes police end up helping the growers, once foiling a plot to rip off The Farm.

The neighbors don't seem too concerned.

"Unless someone is mad at you, there is a live and let live philosophy here," said Tony Largaespada, who runs the tasting room at a nearby vineyard.

Bowman, 51, learned his craft as an outlaw grower, part of the subculture that has thrived in the Emerald Triangle of southwestern Oregon and northwestern California for 40 years, since hippies and survivalists came here to make their living outside the mainstream. He is frustrated that police and even some in the medical marijuana movement look at the growers as bad guys.

"They like pot now, but still don't like potheads,"' he said. "They are trying to ease out the people who kept this plant alive and vital. We're the ones who went to jail, lost our properties, lost our kids. We're the ones who sacrificed. If anyone is going to prosper from this it should be the people who paid the biggest price."

Bowman started smoking pot as a teenager in Iowa, where he first tried to grow his own. In the 1980s he moved first to Humboldt County in California, and then up to the Illinois Valley in southwestern Oregon's Josephine County. The region was settled during the Gold Rush, but now struggles with the timber industry in decline.

It has Oregon's densest population of medical marijuana patients and growers. State figures show 3.5 percent of residents held patient cards last year, and 2.2 percent held grower cards. Neighboring Jackson County, where Bowman resides, and legally smokes pot for chronic pain, migraines, and depression.

Busted for growing marijuana in the Illinois Valley, Bowman did three years in federal prison in the early 1990s. In 1998, Oregon voters authorized medical marijuana. Since 2002 Bowman has been growing it here, on 5 acres owned by his girlfriend, with the number of patients getting a little bigger every year. He and his partners hope to buy this land, and cash in like he never could as an outlaw.

But because the law prohibits growers from being paid for more than electricity and materials, like fertilizer, they have to depend on donations from benefactors Bowman will not name.

"Even though we work, we're basically like the guys sitting on the side of the road, saying, 'Hey, I need some money,'" he said. "What we want to do is be able to pay taxes like everyone else. But we can't, because of the sale language."

The main crop comes from 30 proven strains with names like Arcata Trainwreck, each one preferred by some patient for treating a particular ailment. The mother plants are kept in a second-floor greenhouse with sheet plastic sides. The clones are rooted in sheds below, then get moved out to greenhouses. Bowman is always looking for something new, cross-pollinating and testing the results. Those starts are in another greenhouse, along with sprouting melon seeds, part of the diversification effort to produce organic vegetables.

Bowman gets help from 30 volunteers.

Ben Smith, 29, of Ashland works half the year building schools in Central America, but when he is home, takes care of his dad, a medical marijuana patient.

"Before I got clones from here, I couldn't grow anything,"' he said.

Patrick LeRoy, 49, of Grants Pass, was a carpenter, but can't work since breaking his back and neck. Hunched in a chair under a fluorescent light, he trims buds—"I do it for my donation"—which he smokes for chronic pain.

"It's like a family farm,"' Bowman said.


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