In southwest Oregon, cannabis is a cottage industry.
Thousands of people grow under the legal protection of the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program, and have registered with the state. Others grow without any legal protection in secret, in backyards and on hillsides, as people in the area did long before the OMMP existed.
October is harvest month.
Towns like Applegate and Williams fill with young men and women from Portland, Eugene and other Northwest cities. They often dress in a style that blends farmer and hippy sensibilities: work pants, heavy boots, dreadlocked hair. Locals refer to them as “trim-migrants.”
They come for what they discreetly call “the seasonal work.” On small farms and in cabins and garages, they help cut marijuana, trimming away small leaves to reveal the potent bud, and hang it to cure.
The Growing Divide In Southwest Oregon
In these areas where marijuana has been cultivated for decades, the growing community is deeply divided by the legalization proposal on Oregon’s ballot.
Measure 91 would allow adults in Oregon to grow, possess and sell marijuana under state regulation.
Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson explains that patrolling marijuana grow operations is his lowest priority. In this county, more than 6 percent of residents have medical marijuana cards.
“There is a significant percentage of the growers who want to see this legal,” said Richard Chasm, a bearded 64-year-old who lives outside Roseburg.
Chasm is a registered grower for two medical marijuana patients. He’s also an activist who remembers the year he started smoking pot — 1968. He’s been dreaming of legalization for a long time.
“We’re willing to pay taxes, we want regulations, we want quality rules. We want police protection” he said. “We need police protection.”
Chasm has been robbed twice, and a grower in nearby Canyonville was beaten and choked to death in a robbery last year. This time of year, he keeps his gun and his dog Bo nearby.
Chasm believes that if he ran a taxed business, rather than a nonprofit medical grow operation, he’d have better luck getting help from the police.
But he knows many growers disagree.
“There is another major contingent who like it just the way it is, and like the grey area involved in the medical marijuana,” he said.
In theory, Oregon’s medical marijuana growers are supposed to operate as nonprofits and sell only to patients who reimburse them for the costs of growing.
In reality, according to several growers and law enforcement officials, the picture is more mixed. Some of the marijuana grown under the OMMP goes to patients, some of it is given away to friends, and some of it is sold on the black market.
Harvest, Trimmers And Wages
Chasm owns a small parcel of land near Roseburg. He grows marijuana in a hoop house, and lives nearby in a cabin he built by hand.
Freshly split wood sits neatly along the cabin wall. “I may not have much, but my winter wood is in,” he said as he opened the door.
Chasm has just harvested five marijuana plants. In his kitchen, cannabis leaves and stems dry near a wood stove. He’s planning to infuse these leftover trimmings into olive oil in a crock-pot.
He pulls a key from his pocket and unlocks a trailer. He’s boarded up the windows with old Republican political signs.
Inside, row upon row of marijuana buds hang to dry like socks on a clothesline.
Each row is labeled neatly with the variety name and the date it was picked. He’s proud of this crop, and he’d like to sell it legally to recreational users if Measure 91 passes.
All these hanging buds are worth several thousand dollars in cash at least.
But some of the people harvesting this year’s marijuana crop don’t think legalization will improve their lives.
Wendy, 34, who asked that OPB only use her first name, moved to Williams, Oregon, from Austin, Texas, to work on an organic farm. That job fell through, so she turned to trimming marijuana.
She hopes some day to save enough money to buy a little land she can work herself.
“I personally don’t want this to be legalized,” she said. “It’s going to hurt a lot of the smaller communities, and a lot of people that I’ve grown to love here.”
Wendy said she likes the idea of using revenue from a marijuana tax to support school funding. But she and many others in Williams distrust the government and fear legalization will mean more regulation and less profit.
She didn’t go into detail about where she works, but she described a typical day.
She sleeps in a cold cabin, wakes up around 8 a.m., 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 said.
Wendy said she’s paid $200 for every pound of marijuana she trims, which works out to about $30 dollars an hour. It’s about the same hourly wage an architect in Medford earns. She doubts she’ll be earning as much trimming if Measure 91 passes.
“People are going to be working for minimum wage, if that,” she said.
Wendy worries legalization will flood the market with pot, making it less valuable. Wendy and other growers and trimmers say the wholesale price of pot has fallen in the past several years, as the legal protection of the OMMP has encouraged more growers to plant larger crops.
“The thought of the price being driven down further, it’s scaring a lot of people,” she said.
Legalization and marijuana pricing
Mark Kleiman, a drug policy expert who advised Washington state when it legalized recreational pot, said growers have reason to be worried about the price.
“Cannabis is a very cheap plant to grow. The thing that keeps its price high is illegality,” he said.
Kleiman said legal pot has been slow to get off the ground in places like Washington, and while the supply is small, it commands a high price.
But Kleiman expects that prices will fall eventually, as small grow operations are replaced by larger farms.
“Once people can produce using industrial techniques, there’s no reason that a joint ought to cost more than a teabag,” he said.
Take, for example, trimming: Wendy’s job cutting green leaves off the marijuana bud. That is expensive work that could be done more cheaply by a machine, according to Kleiman, and legalization may make growers more willing to invest in that kind of expensive equipment.
“It seems to me pretty quickly we’re going to see good trimming machines,” he said.
Southwestern Oregon’s small-scale outdoor growers may be able to compete successfully in a legalized market if their experience and knowledge enable them to grow high-end pot, Kleiman added.
He thinks the state should heavily tax and regulate marijuana to keep the prices artificially high because he believes falling prices could fuel drug addiction.
But he has little sympathy for growers.
“If you feel sorry for lawbreakers who will no longer be able to break the law as profitably, you have a bigger heart than I have,” he said.
Kleiman believes that the trade-offs involved in legalization are ultimately beneficial to growers. They may earn less profit, but they’re also less likely to wind up in jail.
Back in Roseburg, Chasm, the grower who supports legalization, pulled a bottle of cannabis olive oil out of his cupboard.
He said he’s nervous about the changes that could be on the horizon. If Measure 91 passes, he doesn’t know what the playing field will look like.
“We’re all scared that it’s going to be made so it’s grown indoors, or by a half a dozen big corporations,” he said.
Chasm thinks the solution is for growers to get involved in the political process so the changing pot economy doesn’t leave them behind.
Sources for this story came to OPB via the Public Insight Network. If you have experience working on a pot farm, share your story here. Or, share your experience and insights into other issues by becoming part of OPB’s community of sources.