After 23 years working in elder care and as an administrator for companies including Sun West and Asante Health Care Corporation, Lori Duckworth opened SOCCC in the heart of Medford, a block away from the James A. Redden Federal Building. “We served 4,200 patients,” says the petite mother of four and grandmother of three, youthfully dressed in blue jeans and Ugg boots. “And we provided more than cannabis—we were a food and clothing bank.” Among the patients were local residents of federally subsidized housing who, because federal law still prohibits possession of cannabis, can’t medicate at home.
Caitlin Conrad, who has covered the Duckworth case as a field reporter, anchor, and producer at Medford’s KTVL CBS affiliate, says Duckworth is regarded by many locals as “someone who followed the rules, someone, in fact, who would routinely speak out against cannabis farmers if she believed they were operating outside of the law.” The farm inspections planned on the day of the police raid, Duckworth says, were actually part of the center’s efforts to ensure its cultivators were complying with state law.
“The public has been supportive,” Duckworth’s Medford-based attorney, Justin Rosas, says. “Society is tired of these raids and these tactics. If that doesn’t help Lori, I’d be very surprised. We’re seeing that Tea Partiers and progressives have come to the same view about drug policy.”
Indeed, Tina DeAvilla, a beauty shop owner in this former timber town of 76,000 (the health care industry dominates today) who describes herself as a “very conservative Christian,” told me that, for her, the Duckworth case marks a tipping point. “The consensus is that our region is spending a lot of money on these kind of things when there are bigger issues to take care of,” says DeAvilla. “I believe Lori’s indictment is changing public opinion in the Rogue Valley on cannabis legalization.”
Federal law still prohibits the distribution and sale of cannabis. But last August, Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department announced that states which unilaterally legalize the plant will not face federal intervention, provided they follow what legalization advocates now call the “eight points of light”—such rules as preventing the diversion of cannabis from legal to nonlegal states and keeping the plant away from kids.
The Jackson County deputy district attorney assigned to the Duckworth case, Paul Moser, didn’t return a request for an interview. Medford Police Chief Tim George declined to comment. But Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson, whose staff participated in the SOCCC raid, concedes that the days of cannabis raids in his jurisdiction are numbered, if not over, at a time when he can afford only two deputies to cover a county the size of Rhode Island. “We have nothing to do with marijuana,” he says. “We can only deal with life-threatening situations. If someone calls us on a burglary, we have to say, ‘Sorry, we’ll take your information.’”
If (or when) Oregon doeslegalize marijuana, the 100-year-old Engine No. 23 Firehouse on SE Seventh Avenue in Portland—now called “Cannabliss”—exemplifies what a future bud shop might look like. Founded by Matt Price, 28, and steps away from an acupuncture clinic and physical therapy practice, the club offers dozens of varieties of the plant, from Super Silver Haze (a sativa strain) to Royal Purple Kush (an indica) to “edibles” and tinctures of the plant.
Strolling past an indoor skylight that covers the hole through which firefighters once slid down a pole, Price explains that even with March’s change in law, Oregon still will not allow for-profit “sale” of medicinal cannabis. Providers and caregivers will continue to use the word “reimbursement” for the money that changes hands. But instead of providing a space for growers and patients to operate (in exchange for rent and admission fees), as a dispensary Cannabliss will handle the transactions, and Price, in a more clearly defined role, will be able to call his share a salary.
Cannabliss long has benefited from a cordial relationship with Portland police. In 2007, then-police chief Rosie Sizer announced a directive prohibiting officers from assisting federal investigations of state-compliant marijuana operations. Price invited officers to the club the week it opened in 2011. And ever since, “the police have served us like any business in the community,” he says. “Last week a new member said she’d heard about us from a local police officer who’d recommended us as a well-run establishment.”
Price, who dresses business-casual but often sports a hat emblazoned with the Cannabliss logo of two opposing letter c’s, worked for two years in dispensaries in Colorado before moving to Oregon. Cannabliss currently employs nine people, and provides Price a “middle-class income.” Come March 3, he’ll have to pay a new annual registration fee of $4,000, but welcomes the change. “Now we’ll have clear guidelines and controls,” he says. “It takes a lot of guesswork out of being in what was a gray area.”
Retired federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Assistant Special Agent in Charge Paul Schmidt, who until 2010 coordinated federal cannabis interdiction operations in Oregon, says he admires cannabis pioneers like Price. “This is a new industry, which is never easy,” he says, noting that under federal law what they do is still illegal. “More power to ’em. They could’ve gotten a knock on the door from us at any time.”
Price has no illusions that legalization is “the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It’ll be like building any business,” he says, “a long journey with lots of hard work.”
Ninety-seven miles east of Portland, the Cascades flatten out in Wasco County, where an Oregon-born counterstrike against Reagan’s Drug War surge started in 1981, thanks to angry rural mothers. Local law enforcement invited a freelance drug bounty hunter to town; the operative advertised legitimate jobs in a region struggling with unemployment. He lured half a dozen locals into delivering small amounts of cannabis.
“Those arrests spurred organized protests and legal action that ultimately led to the dismissal of all charges and $100,000 in payments to the victims,” recalls Sandee Burbank, now 69. The episode of entrapment inspired her and other local women to found the nonprofit Mothers Against Misuse and Abuse (MAMA). “We were a bunch of women who set out to educate the district attorney that this kind of drug policy would not do.”
The organization exists to “educate about all drugs, and how they interact,” according to Burbank, and opened its first medicinal cannabis clinic in Portland in 2005. It now also operates two others, in Bend and The Dalles. Gray hair in a bun and wearing a rainbow-colored, ankle-length dress, Burbank led me into MAMA’s The Dalles location, set on a quiet, tree-lined corner in an old doctor’s office two blocks from the sheriff’s office. The clinic opens weekdays, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. We visited after closing time to protect patient privacy.
To use a MAMA clinic, patients must first watch an instructional video outlining the lengthy educational process required before even seeing a doctor. Then comes a thick binder of educational literature MAMA has developed over three decades.
“Drug policy must be based on science and harm reduction,” Burbank says. “People must learn not just how the Oregon state cannabis program works, but what cannabis is: How long do its effects last? What are the delivery methods?”
Today the average age of MAMA’s patients is 58. Burbank says many older Oregonians find cannabis works well for reducing pharmaceutical dependence. (In the most recent Gallup poll, Americans older than 65 were the fastest-growing age group supporting cannabis legalization, up 14 percent since 2011.)
Burbank has advocated for legalization since facing down the bounty hunter three decades ago, but she says change “must be accompanied by honest education, in school and in homes. Cannabis can be dangerous, and it can be used responsibly.”