Lori Duckworth flipped the “open” sign on the Southern Oregon Cannabis Community
Center. It was a crisp, sunny, get-things-done day last May in the SOCCC’s historic building in downtown Medford. She, a staffer, and a quartet of volunteers had farm inspections to do, plus a long list of errands for the memorial service of one of the center’s members—a veteran—who had recently died. And, of course, medical cannabis patients would come in for their doctor-prescribed doses, as they had for more than four years. 

Then, on security cameras, she saw the police officers clustering at the front and back doors. “I heard a voice say, ‘Medford police department, we have a warrant,’” she recalls. “I went to the lobby, greeted them, and said I wanted to speak to my attorney.”

The longtime health professional, 48, and her husband, Lee, 49, found themselves in handcuffs, arrested by the Medford Area Drug and Gang Enforcement unit (MADGE) and charged with 22 felony counts each of criminal conspiracy, including intent to sell cannabis. They spent the next seven days in the Jackson County jail, awaiting a bail hearing as the hours of a long holiday weekend and a state furlough day ticked by. 

Operation Store Front—a two-year effort involving 70 state, county, and city officers, according to local news reports—allegedly seized 11 pounds of marijuana from the center. Lori Duckworth’s initial bail was set at $550,000—six times as high as that of a person arrested for robbery, strangulation, and assault that same week. Prosecutors said that officers engineered undercover, illegal purchases of “small amounts” of cannabis sales that went beyond what the state medical law allows. Duckworth counters that the 11-pound claim is wrong, and that she and SOCCC staff closely followed state law. The couple is scheduled to go to trial in July—conceivably, as some of the final casualties in a drug war that goes back to 1935, when marijuana first was made illegal in Oregon.

If polls are any indication, Oregon is poised to become the third US state to institute “adult social cannabis regulation”—otherwise known as legalizing marijuana. In November, voters are all but certain to see a legalization ballot measure, put forth by the Oregon State Legislature or through signatures gathered for an initiative—or both. In the meantime, on March 3 Oregon’s 16-year-old medicinal marijuana laws will, for the first time, allow for state-registered dispensaries (officially “medical marijuana facilities,” according to HB 3460). This new law replaces a system that left those who provide marijuana to the state’s 60,516 registered medical cannabis patients in limbo, neither allowed to sell for profit under state laws nor explicitly banned from existing. 

Doug Fine will read from Hemp Bound, an examination of the industrial and agricultural economy of legalized hemp, at Powell’s City of Books on April 27After three years as a drug policy writer, covering places as varied as New Mexico and Belgium, I toured the Beaver State’s current cannabis landscape to preview the probable post-legalization era. I encountered a typically Oregon mix of the progressive, reactionary, and pragmatic. In the Rogue Valley, even as Duckworth awaited a trial that could deliver six years to life in jail for each charge, the cannabis crop was growing so robustly that I could smell it from I-5 by Grants Pass. In The Dalles, I met a mom who, out of frustration with the Just Say No era, founded a drug education group 30 years ago that now helps patients navigate the state medical cannabis process. In Southeast Portland I toured a “farm-to-bowl” medicinal marijuana small-business incubator: a perfectly Portlandian distribution model for the future. Two miles away in a downtown high-rise, I watched a legal team craft a law that a nationally funded pro-legalization political action committee will take to voters if the Oregon legislature fails to put its own measure on the ballot. 

Cannabis is already among America’s most lucrative crops. Harvard economist and Cato Institute fellow Jeffrey Miron estimates that the national pot market would amount to $20–30
billion if taxed and regulated. (Only corn and soybeans gross more, according to federal statistics.) And when law enforcement in California’s Mendocino County seized 600,000 plants in a 2010 raid, officials estimated that the haul constituted 10 percent of the county’s crop. Extrapolate from there, and it’s possible that county alone produces $6 billion of weed a year.

A Gallup poll last October showed 58 percent of Americans in favor of legalizing the plant, up from 50 percent a year earlier—Oregonians were at 63 percent in another 2013 poll. Even traditionally conservative states like Arizona, Missouri, and Kentucky are polling with majorities supporting the end of this particular battle in the war on drugs. Forty percent of Colorado Republicans voted to legalize cannabis in the 2012 election. 

Change is coming. Whether the change comes fast enough to help Lori and Lee Duckworth, however, remains to be seen.