By Noelle Crombie, The Oregonian
Even through a helicopter window at 500 feet, the marijuana plants are easy to spot. They’re vigorous and deep green, taking on a dense, bulbous shape as fall harvest approaches. They’re planted in clusters so plentiful that you lose count of the groves passing below during an hourlong flight north from Ashland.
This rural swath of the state is the heart of Oregon marijuana country, known for highly productive cannabis plants that churn out some of the finest pot available. The effect of the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act on southern Oregon has been profound, legitimizing clandestine growers and bringing their industry into the mainstream.
Nothing underscores the region’s deep ties to cannabis more than the number of medical marijuana patients who live there. Josephine County, especially the Illinois and Applegate valleys, is home to the highest concentrations of medical marijuana patients in Oregon, according to The Oregonian’s analysis of state medical marijuana data.
Statewide, 15 out of 1,000 Oregonians are medical marijuana patients. Jackson County has more than twice that many, and Josephine County has more than triple the state average.
The newspaper found ZIP codes in the region where nine, 12 and 16 percent of residents hold Oregon medical marijuana cards, far more than anywhere else in Oregon.
Topping the list: ZIP code 97544 in the community of Williams, near the California border, where 379 out of 2,206 residents are medical marijuana patients, or 11 times the state average. Were you to host Thanksgiving Day dinner for a dozen Williams residents chosen at random, chances are two guests would have cards.
Patients and marijuana producers say they are drawn to the region for its perfect growing climate and live-and-let-live attitude.
Police say the disproportionately high percentage of patients in small southern Oregon communities confirms what they already know: Marijuana growers go there to make a profit. Newcomers are known to scout out “420-friendly” properties and pay in cash.
Said Medford Police Chief Tim George: “I don’t think you could find anyone who would say those are colonies of sick people.”
No other part of the state has experienced the federal government’s frustration with medical marijuana as has southern Oregon. Federal agents have raided 15 large-scale medical marijuana grow sites in the region since 2010, cracking down on producers they see as operating outside the state’s medical marijuana program.
But local law enforcement, particularly in cash-strapped Josephine County, is too overwhelmed to consider pot a priority.
The region is a haven to people like Lori Duckworth, a 47-year-old former health care administrator, married mother of four and cannabis grower. For Duckworth, southern Oregon’s concentration of medical marijuana patients underscores the extent to which marijuana has become a way of life.
“If you were to remove cannabis from this community, it would be devastating,” said Duckworth, who lives in Cave Junction. “This community supports the grocery stores, the hardware stores, the auto shop.”
Duckworth cuts a striking figure.
She wears rhinestone-studded glasses and has blond hair that hangs around her shoulders. Heart-shaped earrings dangle from her ears. Her nose is pierced and her fingernails are French manicured, each tip adorned with a swirl of red and green.
She believes in Jesus, votes Democratic and beams when talk turns to her grandkids.
And she’s usually armed with a Kimber 9 mm.
Duckworth hosts a weekly radio show devoted to medical marijuana and speaks with the enthusiasm of a religious convert, calling the drug “a huge part of our lives.”
“It’s what we do,” she said. “I truly believe this is the life plant.”
Duckworth lives and grows pot on a farm that once produced perennials for Harry & David, the Medford company that invented mail-order fruit.
The product of a modest upbringing in Fairmount, Ind., Duckworth moved to Oregon in 1991 with her then-elementary-school-age son and daughter. In 1992 she met her husband, Lee, and together they had a child and adopted another child.
Duckworth said the couple went through dark stretches early on, including violence and drug abuse.
But hard drugs, she said, are behind them.
Although Lee Duckworth is unable to work because of a back injury, he helps around the house and plays with the grandkids. The couple get by on his Supplemental Security Income.
Lori Duckworth became a patient in 2009 to treat pain related to fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel syndrome and spinal stenosis. She uses marijuana-infused lotions and tinctures daily. Some days she also smokes the drug.
Lee Duckworth used narcotic painkillers for years to cope with pain from a herniated disc, but prescription drugs left him depressed and unable to play with their kids.
Now he consumes about 4 pounds of marijuana a year and relies on a marijuana extract so rich in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), his wife said, that “each time he uses it, it’s like getting high for the first time.”
“Don’t poke the bear”
The medical marijuana collective and resource center Lori Duckworth oversees in downtown Medford is a fitting metaphor for the drug’s Main Street appeal — and for its complicated relationship with the federal government.
She estimates that more than 4,000 dues-paying medical marijuana patients get access to pot at the Southern Oregon Cannabis Community Center. The federal courthouse sits a few feet away. Step inside the courthouse and a security guard will ask whether you have any medical marijuana.
(It’s not allowed here, he’ll say.)
When it comes to the feds, Duckworth has a saying: “Don’t poke the bear.”
With some exceptions, federal statutes mandate a prison term of at least five years for certain marijuana-related crimes.
To stay out of the government’s cross hairs, the Duckworths scaled back their marijuana cultivation this year from 96 plants to 60.
The couple keep on retainer a Portland-based attorney whose area of specialty is marijuana, a common practice among growers cultivating pot for more than one person. Though three of her kids are grown and out of the house — two of the three are cardholders — she’s arranged for someone to take care of the couple’s 17-year-old son if she and her husband are arrested.
“If you have children,” she said, “you need a plan for them.”
The road through the community of Takilma, not far from the Duckworths’ home, is lined with tall pines draped in moss. A bulletin board announces an upcoming dinner and dance. Signs hawk organic eggs and culinary herbs, warn drivers to slow down, and urge everyone to think globally and act locally.
Yet secrecy and suspicion are woven into the fabric of the region, where pot cultivation and consumption are multigenerational affairs. In this area, signs that say “No trespassing” also abound.
Duckworth said since September, groups of armed and masked robbers have targeted medical marijuana growers in the early morning hours, storming their properties, tying them up and stealing their plants.
Many houses and greenhouses are concealed behind thick stands of trees, tall fences and locked gates. Black plastic sheeting blocks views of fenced-in areas set back from the road. Security cameras are trained on entrances to some properties. “Smile,” reads one sign next to a camera.
Oregon law prohibits cultivation or use of marijuana in public. The law also doesn’t require inspections of medical marijuana grow sites, so authorities don’t know how much is being grown. Police can enter a property only with a search warrant or permission. And permission is hard to come by.
Duckworth said growers who traffic in the drug, illicitly shipping it out of state for sale, reflect poorly on the medical marijuana program.
“We’re normal people,” she said. “We want safe communities. Our children and our grandchildren live here too.”
But when it comes to police, the Duckworths agree with Josephine County voters who defeated a levy to sustain the sheriff’s office this year after devastating losses of timber revenue.
The sheriff’s office was effectively dismantled as a result. Sixty-five of 98 sheriff’s office positions were eliminated. The jail population is capped at 69. Police now focus on violent crime, and marijuana barely ranks on the list of priorities.
Sitting atop an ATV on his property, Lee Duckworth was blunt about law enforcement:
“We don’t need any more cops in Josephine County.”
“Where I belong”
On a late summer afternoon, Duckworth walked through her greenhouse, her flip-flops snapping against her feet. She plucked a couple of withered leaves from her marijuana plants, many of which were smaller than they should be by this time of year. Mites, mold and overwatering damaged this year’s crop.
A woman in an industry dominated by men, Duckworth is undeterred.
“You better be spot on with your numbers,” she said, referring to the levels of cannabinoids and THC in her plants. “You better know what chemicals treat what problems.”
If not, male growers will “over-talk you and push you to the side.”
She has overcome other obstacles.
Confronted three years ago by her pastor about her medical marijuana use, Duckworth and her family quit the congregation.
“This is where I belong,” Duckworth said, sitting in a shed just feet from her marijuana plants. “This is where I feel close to God.”