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Pot Legalization Measure Divides Marijuana Producers in Southwest Oregon

John Rosman

Next week, voters in Oregon will decide whether to legalize recreational marijuana. In rural southwest Oregon growers are divided by ballot Measure 91. Some see benefits to a new legal market. Others fear their way life is about to change. It’s the first story in our new series, Cannabis Country, a look inside Southwest Oregon’s pot economy.

In the hills that surround cities like Medford and Roseburg cannabis is a cottage industry. Thousands have signed up to grow the plant under the protection of the state’s medical marijuana program. In October, they cut the valuable flowers.

Richard Chasm, a bearded 64 year old, has just harvested 5 plants.

“I grow for patients. But I’ve been smoking since 1968.”

Chasm is registered to grow for two patients. He lives in the hills near Roseburg in a cabin he built by hand. He’s stacked wood neatly next to the door.

“I may not have much, but my winter wood is in.”

He pulls a key from his pocket and unlocks a trailer with boarded up windows. Here, row upon row of marijuana buds hang to dry like clothes on a clothesline.

“One of these varieties is extremely aromatic. It’s almost a floral scent.”

He’s labeled each row with the variety name and the date it was picked. He’s proud of his crop. He’d like to sell it legally to recreational users if measure 91 passes.

“We’re willing to pay taxes, we want regulations, we want quality rules. We want police protection. We need police protection.”

Credit John Rosman / OPB
Richard Chasm, a medical grower in Roseburg, reaches above a trimmed marijuana plant in his hoophouse.

Chasm keeps his gun and his dog Bo near by. The drying plants are worth thousands of dollars. He’s been robbed twice, and a grower nearby was beaten and choked to death in a robbery last year.

Measure 91 would allow adults in Oregon to grow, possess and sell marijuana under state regulation.

But some of the people harvesting this year’s marijuana crop don’t think legalization will improve their lives.

“I personally don’t want this to be legalized. It’s going to hurt a lot of the smaller communities, and a lot of people that I’ve grown to love.”

That’s a woman named Wendy. She asked that we only use her first name, because producing marijuana is still federally illegal.

Wendy is 33. She’s from Austin Texas. She moved to Williams Oregon to work on an organic farm. That job fell through, so she’s trimming marijuana.

She describes a typical day.

Credit John Rosman / OPB
Wendy, a marijuana trimmer in Oregon's Applegate Valley

She wakes up around 8, makes a cup of coffee, and sits under a bright light snipping marijuana buds with a pair of scissors.

“Everybody wants their pot trimmed a certain way. Very clean, no green leaves at all. It can be tedious,” she says.

Wendy says she’s paid $200 for every pound of marijuana she trims. That works out to about $33 dollars an hour. It’s only seasonal work, but that’s about the same hourly wage as an architect in Medford. She doubts she’ll be earning as much trimming if Measure 91 passes.

“People are going to be working for minimum wage, if that.”

There are marijuana growers in the region who don’t want their businesses to be regulated by the government. And Wendy fears legalization could flood the market with pot, making the crops less valuable.

“The thought of the price being driven down further, it’s scaring a lot of people.”

That’s not surprising, says drug policy expert Mark Kleiman. Kleiman advised Washington state when it legalized recreational pot. Kleiman says growers have reason to be worried about the price of pot.

“Cannabis is a very cheap plant to grow. The thing that keeps its price high is illegality.”

Legal pot has been slow to get off the ground in places like Washington, and while the supply of legal pot small, it still sells for a high price. But Kleimann expects that eventually prices will fall, as small grow operations are replaced by larger farms.

“Once people can produce using industrial techniques, and once competition hammers down the market, there’s no reason that a joint ought to cost more than a teabag.”

Take trimming, for example, he says. That’s the job Wendy does, cutting green leaves off the bud. Kleiman says it wouldn’t be hard to design a machine to do that work more cheaply.

“It wouldn’t be hard to design a machine to do that, and save a lot of money. But if you’re in an illegal business, you don’t want a heavy machine you’re gong to have to invest in and that is difficult to move,” he says.
That’s work that could be done more cheaply by a machine.

Credit John Rosman / OPB
Richard Chasm guards marijuana drying in his trailer with a shotgun.

Back in Roseburg, Richard Chasm, the grower who supports legalization, pulls a bottle of cannabis olive oil out of his cupboard.

He too is nervous about the changes that could be on the horizon.

“We’re all scared that it’s going to be made so it’s grown indoors, or a by half a dozen big corporations.”

Chasm says he thinks the solution is for growers to get involved in the political process so the changing pot economy doesn’t leave them behind.

Copyright 2014 OPB

Sources for this story came to OPB via the Public Insight Network. You can share your story at opb.org/cannabiscountry, and see video, photos and more from this series.

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