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Smoke Screen: A threatened crackdown hasn't deterred Deschutes County's medical marijuana movement 

The Herb Center's Brent Goodman invites readers into the legalities of running a medical marijunana dispensary.

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With a pair of sunglasses on his head, a surf shop T-shirt on his back and sandals on his feet, Brent Goodman arrives at his office in attire that's casual, even by Bend's standards. But then again there's nothing traditional about Goodman's office. A former commercial realtor, Goodman is one of a handful of entrepreneurs hoping to capitalize on Oregon's fast-growing medical marijuana program that has seen its numbers balloon to 50,000 current and pending marijuana cardholders as of April.

It's the first time that Goodman has allowed a member of the media into his business, one of several new marijuana "dispensaries" in Bend, though there is no official term to describe or classify the range of marijuana-related businesses that cropped up in the last year or so. Ironically, these business - which operate in Bend with names like Bend's Best Buds, Central Oregon Alternative Therapy, and in Goodman's case, The Herb Center (THC) - proliferated after voters defeated a law to legalize the retail sale of marijuana under Oregon's Medical Marijuana Program (OMMP).

Until earlier this month, the dispensary-style outlets, which allow patients to effectively acquire high-grade marijuana as if they were buying a pair of socks or a six-pack of beer, have operated in a legal gray area. Cops and prosecutors have been reticent to crack down on the operations, which have used the vagaries of the law to create a sophisticated system of production and distribution within the medical marijuana community. Earlier this month, state and federal law enforcement officials effectively revoked the free pass, putting providers on notice that they could be subject to criminal prosecution if they were caught charging patients for marijuana. While it's too early to know the impact of the government's more rigid stance on the medical pot industry, there's plenty of evidence to show that it's going to take more than just a letter to eradicate the cottage industry that has sprung up around medical marijuana. That's because in places like Deschutes County, law enforcement doesn't consider pot retailers to be a high priority, particularly at a time when agencies are typically working with limited budgets for investigations and prosecutions.

In some cases, marijuana providers are working proactively to ensure that law enforcement knows how they are operating. Goodman, for instance, reached out to Deschutes County District Attorney Patrick Flaherty, encouraging his patients to contact the district attorney to express their concerns about any crackdown that would put The Herb Center out of business. After fielding a dozen or so phone calls from Goodman's patients, Flaherty agreed to come out to The Herb Center, a small and relatively non-descript storefront tucked between used car lots and a craft bead shop on Division Street. Flaherty brought his top felony drug prosecutor Steve Gunnels along for the meeting. Flaherty said he didn't give The Herb Center an opinion one way or the other on the legality of its operation. However, he said that after meeting with patients he was able to allay their fears about a blanket crackdown on medical marijuana, which Flaherty said is not coming in Deschutes County, at least not from his office.

"There was an impression that district attorneys offices, not just here but around the state, planned to shut down medical marijuana dispensaries, and that's just not the case. So long as the dispensaries operate within the confines of the [Medicinal] Marijuana Act, it's not even on the radar," Flaherty said.

The situation reflects the uneasy truce and underlying tension between states like Oregon that have adopted medical marijuana laws and largely decriminalized the drug, and the federal government, which continues to view marijuana as a dangerous substance. Leading the charge against medical marijuana providers in Oregon is the state's top federal prosecutor U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton who sent out a letter to marijuana dispensaries signed by more than 30 county-level district attorneys, including Flaherty. The letter was similar to one sent out by the U.S. Attorney in eastern Washington targeting dispensaries in the Spokane area. Holton's June 3 letter specifically targeted retail-style operations and landlords and advised them that the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act, "does not permit for the sale of marijuana in any form." Moreover the letter stated that the U.S. Attorney's Office has the power to seize plants and prosecute individuals and property owners involved with the sale of drugs, including marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act. The real intent thought, said Flaherty, who spoke with Holton prior to signing the letter is to get medical marijuana providers to voluntarily comply with the state law.

"The law is the law and if you're selling marijuana for consideration, that is illegal under the Medical Marijuana Act," Flaherty said. "And while there may be some gray area, I think generally, these folks that are not operating lawfully know that they're not operating lawfully, and if those people close down, I'm going to feel real comfortable. We closed down some unlawful operations and we didn't have to expend any public money doing it."

Places like Mothers Against Misuse and Abuse (MAMA), which helps patients register for the program by connecting them with physicians and assisting with paperwork, say they're operating within the existing law and aren't surprised by the crackdown, given how fast and loose some of the dispensary-style outfits were operating. Others in the industry say they agree.

"In my opinion, I don't think that most of those organizations were really putting out medicine," said Sam Stapleton, who operates Diamond Tree, a medical marijuana business that specializes in connecting patients with growers and charges a "connection fee" for the service.

"We're not stoked on the letter, but we're not going to shut our doors because we feel we're not breaking the law. We're 100 percent in compliance with Oregon law," said Stapleton, who left school on the East Coast in hopes of getting in on the front end of the medical marijuana boom in Oregon.

But some operators have temporarily altered how they do business, at least until they have some more assurance that they won't be targeted for prosecution. MAMA founder and Executive Director Sandee Burbank said her non-profit group stopped providing starter plants to patients and hosting so-called socials, where patients can exchange and smoke marijuana, on the premises of its clinics in Bend, Portland and the Dalles. Burbank, who also serves on the state advisory board for medical marijuana, said she expects that a follow-up statement from Holton will clear the air about just what places like MAMA can do for medical marijuana patients. In Bend, the MAMA clinic, which is located in a former chiropractic office, behind Albertson's on Fourth Street, is still scheduling twice-weekly patient enrollment programs and conducting clinics for OMMP patients on-site. On a recent weekday afternoon, the small parking lot behind MAMA was full and a small class convened inside to learn the finer points of making tincture, a THC-infused liquid that many patients use as a supplement or in place of smoking marijuana. For those who do want to smoke, there's also a small retail store inside the clinic with what manager Tristan Reisfar said is the most comprehensive library of marijuana books in Central Oregon and includes the title, "It's Just a Plant: A Children's Story About Marijuana."

MAMA isn't unusual in its somewhat surreal mixing of conventional medicine with its magazine adorned waiting rooms and mainstream marijuana culture with its tie-dyed T-shirts and glass blown pipes. At the Herb Center, Goodman and his staff don lab coats for customers before escorting them into the "bud room" where customers can choose from dozens of strains arranged like a giant rack of cooking spices in Mason-style jars along the wall. After selecting their medicine, customers step back into the retail area where they can buy a hooded sweatshirt with The Herb Center's logo or a glass pipe. Customers can also buy a raffle ticket to win a Volcano vaporizer, a smokeless delivery device that costs in excess of $400. Goodman is quick to point out that he isn't profiting from the transactions that occur at The Herb Center. Rather, he said patients are reimbursing growers, who work with Goodman as part of a collective. While the operation isn't making any money - yet - Goodman said the intent is to franchise the model when Oregon passes a more liberal dispensary law that will allow growers and retailers to take a cut of the booming marijuana trade.

For now though, most of the medical marijuana-related businesses are keeping a low profile in light of the U.S. Attorney's letter. One of the newest additions to the dispensary scene, Bend's Best Buds did not return a phone call seeking comment and a staffer deferred to the owner who was not present on a follow-up call. Goodman has yet to advertise his business in an effort to stay under the radar. While, he has no plans to change what he's doing at The Herb Center, which Goodman says complies with the state law, After speaking with his attorney, Goodman asked not to be included in this story out of fear of federal prosecution. (the Source does not grant retroactive retractions) In a follow up converation, Goodman told the Source that federal agents had set up shop in Portland to crack down on Oregon medical marijuana businesses. However, the Source was unable to confirm that assertion with the U.S. Attorney's office, which did not return a message seeking comment. A quick review of the recent headlines shows that the busts that followed the June letter have all been lead by local officials. And so far, the only business to actually have its operations shuttered is the Wake-n-Bake Cannabis Lounge, which set up a European style pot café in an Aloha mall next to an exercise studio. More recently, officials in Clatsop County put a dispensary-style operation on notice that it could be facing criminal charges if it's caught selling marijuana.

Burbank, who has been fighting for more than three decades to decriminalize marijuana in Oregon and across the nation, said she doesn't have a lot of sympathy for business owners who push the envelope and get burned. She believes that the laws need to be changed at the federal level before Oregon can make any real progress. But given that Oregon voters were unwilling to back a dispensary law just last year, she said entrepreneurs who work on the margins of the medical marijuana laws do so at their peril.

"I have no problem with (law enforcement) doing raids on the people that are selling cannabis. I can't defend those people," Burbank said.

Goodman agrees, even if his eye is ultimately toward the bottom line. But in the murky area of medical marijuana law, the difference between doing business and doing time is a fine line. And for now, at least, the feds are watching to see who is toeing it.

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Cash Cow

Growers aren't the only ones looking for a cut of cannabis business

Although accurate statistics are hard to come by, most experts agree that marijuana is quickly surpassing many of the nation's leading agricultural products as a cash crop and Oregon is at the top of the list of producers. A 2006 study published by the nonprofit drug research and advocacy group Drug Science placed Oregon in the top five states for indoor marijuana production, with an estimated crop value of roughly $210 million in 2006. Overall, the study's author Jon Gettman put the value of Oregon's crop at $473 million in 2006, making Oregon one of the top 10 pot producing states in the West.

And that was before the most recent boom in production.

Growers and dealers aren't the only one's cashing in, however. This year the state legislators quietly doubled the annual enrollment fee from $100 to $200 for OMMP patients. The proposal would also eliminate a provision that provides for a reduced fee of $20 for low-income patients. The additional fee dollars would ostensibly generate more money for other state-funded healthcare programs. It's not the first time that the state has leaned on the OMMP program to fund other expenses. Lawmakers raided the OMMP fund during the biennium, as well. However, the fee increase has drawn fire from advocates, including OMMP advisory board member Sandee Burbank, who runs the non-profit medical marijuana group Mothers Against Misuse and Abuse that operates clinics in Bend, the Dalles and Portland. Burbank helped write Oregon's medical marijuana law. Burbank said the state's Advisory Committee on Medical Marijuana (ACMM) was intentionally kept in the dark about the proposed changes to the fee schedule by the staff of the Oregon Health Authority when the committee met in June. The committee held an emergency meeting last week to address the issue, but only after legislators had passed the budget language out of committee. The ACMM ultimately endorsed the fee increase, but advocated to keep a reduced fee of $100 for low-income patients.

The entire episode left advocates like Burbank frustrated by the lack of transparency from state bureaucrats who were well aware of the changes, but opted to deliberately withhold it from their own advisory board.

"The whole thing is so secretive. It's been hard to find out who introduced the bill. They're trying to balance the budget for other health projects, and that's sorely needed, but they're doing it on the backs of some of the sickest people in the state," Burbank said.

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