Pubdate: Sun, 23 Sep 2012
Source: Oregonian, The (Portland, OR)
Copyright: 2012 The Oregonian
Author: Noelle Crombie


Elizabeth Saul shipped high-grade Oregon marijuana to the East Coast 
to pay the bills. In five months, the southern Oregon woman pulled in 
$125,000. She was busy, but grateful.

"Thank you so much for the safe and secure delivery of my packages to 
NYC," she wrote in her diary. "I love you God! You are the best. Love, Liz."

God wasn't the only higher power Saul had to thank for her success. 
The Oregon Medical Marijuana Program deserved credit too. The law 
allowed Saul and her associates to grow a surplus of pot, which 
police say she sold on the nationwide black market for hundreds of 
thousands of dollars.

Fourteen years ago, Oregon voters approved marijuana for use by the 
state's sickest residents. The program serves thousands of Oregonians 
with serious illnesses.

Yet The Oregonian reviewed a wide range of law enforcement data, 
including nationwide highway stops, police reports and federal and 
state court records, and found the illicit trafficking of Oregon 
medical marijuana is widespread and highly lucrative.

Exploitation of the marijuana program is made possible by scant state 
oversight and Oregon's exceptionally generous medical marijuana 
possession and plant limits, all of which lead to the production of 
far more pot than a typical patient needs.

The Oregonian's analysis shows, for the first time, how extensively 
the state's medical marijuana program is manipulated for profit. 
Nearly 40 percent of Oregon pot seized on the nation's most common 
drug-trafficking routes during the first three months of this year 
was tied to the medical marijuana program. Since 2010, federal law 
enforcement authorities have identified more than a dozen large-scale 
and highly profitable operations trafficking hundreds of pounds of 
Oregon medical marijuana to at least seven states.

The Oregonian's analysis of Oregon State Police highway stops in 2011 
found that 1 in 5 marijuana-related stops had ties to the medical 
marijuana program. Medical marijuana is moving through Oregon from 
California and Washington, too.

Seventy-two percent of all state police stops involving pot in Oregon 
last year were linked to state-run medical marijuana programs. Last 
year, police patrolling Oregon's highways seized more West Coast 
medical marijuana than pot grown outside the program.

Dozens of trafficking prosecutions involve medical marijuana 
cardholders with existing criminal histories, some extensive. A 
review of all marijuana cases opened since 2007 by the Washington 
County district attorney's office found 84 involved medical marijuana 
cardholders. Two-thirds of those defendants had prior arrests on 
allegations including assault, rape and robbery. One defendant had 16 
felony convictions.

These defendants were allowed into the state medical marijuana 
program because certain drug offenses are the only felonies that 
preclude participation. The Oregonian also found cases in which 
cardholders growing pot for profit paid their workers in cash and 
weed, a practice Oregon prosecutors say itself is illegal. Others 
recruited medical marijuana patients to boost the number of plants 
they could cultivate and the amount of pot they could possess.

Oregon law lacks provisions for inspecting marijuana grow sites of 
any size, so authorities have no clear idea how much pot they produce 
and what growers do with their excess.

The issue of how much pot medical marijuana growers can produce 
gained renewed prominence last week when federal agents descended on 
seven southern Oregon properties associated with James Bowman, who 
serves more patients than any medical marijuana grower in the state.

Amanda Marshall, the U.S. attorney for Oregon, said the math for 
medical marijuana growers does not add up.

"The plants you grow in southern Oregon are going to be 8 to 10 feet 
tall, and they are going to produce 6 to 10 pounds of smokable 
product," Marshall said. "So why are you growing six plants per 
cardholder, when each cardholder can only get 1 1/2 pounds?

"They are selling it. It's a huge profit margin. They are not burning 
it up or flushing it down the toilet or destroying the excess."

Saul gets her start

Saul moved to Oregon in 2008 to be with the man she considered her 
soul mate. The 46-year-old left a good job in the Northeast for life 
in the Grants Pass area, the heart of Oregon's marijuana country. She 
relied on her boyfriend for financial support.

Bereft and broke after his sudden death the following year, Saul 
became an Oregon medical marijuana patient in 2010, citing severe 
pain from migraines and bursitis. She started selling weed to pay the 
bills, her diary shows.

Oregon's medical marijuana law, she said in an interview, made it easy.

"They set up people to do this," Saul said.

The law allows growers to cultivate six mature plants per patient, 
and each grower can take on up to four patients. That adds up to two 
dozen plants, each with the potential to churn out multiple pounds of pot.

Medical marijuana patients, meanwhile, are allowed to possess up to 
24 ounces, or 1.5 pounds, of pot at any time.

"If you're an outdoor grower and you are worth your salt, you can't 
help but overgrow that limit," she said.

Saul said she wasn't in the medical marijuana program only to make 
money. She said she gave away pot to other patients.

"It was gratifying to me when I helped patients," she said. "They 
looked at this as their medicine. They were elated."

Saul pulled up to a Northwest Portland shipping company in May 2011. 
She was unloading heavily taped cardboard boxes and thrift-store 
furniture into a cargo container destined for Boston when two men 
approached, a dog at their side.

They were Portland police officers, they said. The dog, Nikko, was 
trained to sniff out drugs.

Would she mind if they took a look at what she was shipping?

Crops head East

Operations such as Saul's are so common that state police in Oregon 
and Idaho have started keeping statistics on traffic stops linked to 
the state's medical marijuana program. They seized about 300 pounds last year.

Traffickers are savvy about using the mail, too.

Authorities found 350 pounds of medical marijuana in packages moving 
through the U.S. mail facility in Portland from October 2011 through 
May of this year. They also discovered a half-million dollars in cash 
- -- proceeds from the sale of medical marijuana -- in packages mailed 
to Oregon addresses.

The incentive to move Oregon medical marijuana out of state boils 
down to simple economics. It goes for $1,000 to $3,000 a pound in 
Oregon, law enforcement officials say. Once it reaches the Midwest 
and East Coast, Oregon pot can net up to $5,200 a pound.

In Arkansas, where Oregon medical marijuana sells for at least $3,000 
a pound, authorities have seen an influx of medical marijuana from 
Oregon and California.

Texas pot -- locals call it ragweed -- is popular in Arkansas but 
doesn't come close to what authorities see coming out of Oregon.

"That stuff y'all got out there, it's high-grade marijuana," said 
Arkansas State Police Capt. Keith Eremea.

Medical marijuana advocates have their own interpretation of police 
statistics on seizures of Oregon medical marijuana across the country.

Leland Berger, a Portland lawyer, says medical marijuana cardholders 
may be victims of police profiling. Or, he says, they may simply be 
more inept than seasoned drug traffickers, making medical marijuana 
cardholders easier marks for police.

Berger says law enforcement's priorities are misplaced.

"It's just such a huge diversion of law enforcement resources to be 
stopping cars and looking for marijuana when there are so many other 
real crimes going on that actually affect public safety," he said. 
"We're not talking about spent nuclear fuel."

But Marshall, the U.S. attorney, said federal medical marijuana 
trafficking investigations turn up money laundering, tax evasion and 
unregistered weapons, the same crimes authorities see in meth, heroin 
and cocaine trafficking cases.

Marshall said police aren't targeting marijuana in car stops. They're 
looking for heroin, meth and illegal guns. Pot is often what they find.

Saul gets stopped

Saul didn't hesitate when Portland police asked to check out her 
bags. Sure, she said.

Within moments, Nikko alerted to the smell of marijuana in the cargo 
container. Police started opening boxes, each stuffed with 1-pound 
packages of the drug. In all, she had 74 pounds. Saul admitted this 
was the third or fourth time she'd used a cargo container to ship pot east.

Officer C.J. Kenagy looked through Saul's phone records and iPad. 
Kenagy found shipping numbers, cargo trailer information, notes about 
what she was owed and what she'd paid, communications with marijuana 
growers and customers, and drug transactions that amounted to 
hundreds of thousand of dollars a month.

Later that day, authorities back in Josephine County searched Saul's 
home, turning up 155 marijuana plants, almost twice as many as she 
was allowed by the medical marijuana law. They discovered scales, 
packing materials and $10,000 stashed in a pressure cooker in a bathroom.

And they found Saul's journal, which she had opened once more before 
heading to Portland.

In it, she'd jotted down a prayer for a "safe shipment" to Boston.

Saul returned to southern Oregon that afternoon, this time in an 
unmarked police car, an Oregon State Police sergeant at the wheel.

Police were counting on her to identify her medical marijuana suppliers.

Bumps in the road

To get east, Oregon pot usually winds through Idaho, where medical 
marijuana is illegal and drug penalties are stiff.

In the first three months of this year, 40 percent of pot seizures of 
1 pound or more from Idaho State Police highway stops was Oregon 
medical marijuana.

One of those stops involved Justin Brownrigg, a 39-year-old medical 
marijuana cardholder from Eugene.

Brownrigg was pulled over for speeding by an Oregon State Police 
trooper. Brownrigg told the trooper he was a medical marijuana 
cardholder and that he had a quarter ounce of pot, well within 
Oregon's medical marijuana possession limit.

The cop sent Brownrigg on his way, then relayed a message to his 
Idaho counterparts: An Oregon driver was headed their way with pot on board.

Crossing into Idaho that day, Brownrigg was stopped again. This time, 
the trooper searched the car, turning up about 69 pounds of pot.

Gearld Wolff, deputy prosecutor in Idaho's Canyon County, has 
prosecuted nearly two dozen trafficking cases with an Oregon medical 
marijuana connection in the past 16 months. Three involved suspects 
initially stopped by Oregon State Police and sent on their way after 
showing their medical marijuana cards.

"They have even gone as far as showing the Oregon State Police 
officer parphernalia and a half-ounce of marijuana," Wolff said. "And 
the officer thinks they have more than that, but is constrained by 
Oregon law on what he can and can't do.

"So they tend to call their friends at the Idaho State Police."

Brownrigg was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to five 
years in an Idaho prison.

Chuck Brownrigg said his son, who is married and has a teenage 
daughter, had extra pot from his home-based grow site and decided to 
take it to sick people in Utah, where medical marijuana is illegal.

"He should have stayed in Oregon, period," he said.

Saul gives a tour

The day after her arrest in Portland, Saul led police to three 
medical marijuana growers in Josephine and Jackson counties who 
helped fill her East Coast orders.

One grow site was housed in a high-end bachelor pad, complete with 
beer chilling in commercial-grade coolers, a drum set and tables for 
pool and foosball. A Triumph motorcycle was parked along the wall. A 
disco ball hung from the ceiling.

Detectives spotted an unlocked bank vault door that led to one of the 
most sophisticated indoor marijuana grows they'd ever seen.

Twenty-four marijuana plants were surrounded by 44 lights, each with 
an estimated price tag of about $360. Jason Nelson, the 36-year-old 
bicycle shop owner and Oregon medical marijuana grower who designed 
the elaborate site, had 82 mature plants and 42 pounds of processed 
marijuana, far more than he was allowed as a medical pot grower.

Nelson gave Saul a total of 55 pounds to ship east, according to 
testimony at Nelson's federal trial.

The price paid

In June, a federal jury in Medford found Nelson guilty of conspiracy 
to manufacture and distribute marijuana and the unlawful possession 
of unregistered firearms. He is scheduled to be sentenced next month 
and faces a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison.

Nelson's lawyer, Mike Arnold, declined to comment on the case, but 
likened Oregon's prolific marijuana crop to zucchini in August. 
Gardeners have so much of the vegetable, they want to share it.

"It's not because of greed or self-interest," the Eugene lawyer said. 
"It's just that when people in America grow something and have the 
fruits of their labor, they don't want to see something go to waste."

Two other medical marijuana growers who supplied Saul were convicted 
of felony drug charges and sentenced to probation.

Saul pleaded guilty to felony drug charges. The state seized about 
$15,000 of her assets.

In the end, she served about six months of probation.

Saul reluctantly agreed to talk to The Oregonian about her case. She 
refused to answer many questions about her life. She's left Oregon 
and wouldn't say where she lives. Only a few friends know her past. 
She said she no longer uses marijuana.

"What I did represents a nanosecond of my life at a very desperate 
time," she said. "It's not my life. I have put it behind me."

- - Oregonian researcher Lynne Palombo contributed to this report.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom