In late fall in the rolling foothills of the Siskiyou mountains in Southern Oregon, the air smells like pine and marijuana. Cannabis has been a part of the landscape since the 1960s. Nobody knows who brought the first plant here.
The crop has no formal historian, but over the years, Jacksonville archeologist Chelsea Rose has collected local myths and catalogued the artifacts at the grow sites she finds by accident in the woods. Someday, she hopes to write an ethnography of marijuana.
Hiking up a steep slope above a row of rural homesteads in the Applegate Valley, Rose points out small earthen platforms, 6 feet by 3 feet, that were cut into the hillside under the cover of the manzanita bushes.
When I first saw one, I was like, ‘Cool, a Native American pit house.’ Then I realized it was archeology of a late 20th Century marijuana grow,” she said.
The people who live on the road below believe this hillside is where a legendary local grower first bred Trainwreck, a strain of pot famous for leaving smokers too stoned to get up off the couch. One of the platforms still shelters a tiny greenhouse made of PVC pipe and five black plastic pots, now empty.
In the early years, marijuana was grown in secret, hidden from law enforcement helicopters by the dense manzanita brush. During raids, people stashed their plants in the mine shafts dug 100 years earlier during the Jacksonville Gold Rush, Rose said.
Everything changed in 1998, when Oregon passed its medical marijuana law. The behavior is totally different.
“Big grows, right on the road, behind a little fence,” she said. “This is the Gold Rush of the 21st Century. There’s been a population boom to our little valley here.”
As an archeologist, Rose said she’s curious to see how legal recreational pot will reshape the local landscape, and she’s excited to see such a dramatic change unfold in her lifetime.
“What I suspect is just like the Gold Rush, it starts out with these opportunities for autonomous individuals who, with a bag of topsoil and a little start, can grow marijuana and then later it’s taken over by larger industries, which could be the shift we’re about to see,” she said.
The Modern Gold Rush
Marijuana is already a core part of the economy in Southern Oregon, though the sales are neither tallied nor taxed.
“You probably have a billion-dollar industry going on under your noses right now that most people don’t think about,” said Chris Marr, a member of the Washington Liquor Control Board who helped design the state’s recreational marijuana regulations.
As the Oregon Liquor Control Commission sets out to develop regulations for Oregon’s recreational marijuana system over the next year, Marr said it needs to understand that it is inserting itself as a player into an existing industry.
“Quite frankly, what we heard from thousands and thousands of folks, 2,800 who ended up applying for producer licenses, if you don’t give us a way into your recreational market we will still compete with you on the outside,” he said.
More than 47,800 marijuana growers are registered with the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program (OMMP), according to data from the Oregon Health Authority. To put that in perspective, the agriculture, forestry, and fishing sectors employ about 49,000 people in Oregon, and there are about 20,000 of hotel and motel workers employed in the state.
In Jackson County, about 3.2 percent of the adult population has signed up to grow marijuana through the OMMP, and in neighboring Josephine County, it’s close to 6 percent.
In theory, the growers operate as non-profits that provide pot to registered patients and dispensaries in exchange for reimbursement for their costs. In practice, it’s hard to tell where the OMMP ends and the black market begins.
The Oregon department of Justice has named the OMMP as a major source of black market pot, and several Southern Oregon growers said the OMMP has flooded the area with marijuana, driving the wholesale black market price for marijuana down from $3,000 a pound to $1,500 a pound.
The Pot Grower Next Door
In places, marijuana growers have cleared land, drained streams, and frustrated their neighbors. The National Marine Fisheries service recently concluded that illegal water use on unregulated marijuana farms in Southern Oregon and Northern California threatens endangered Coho salmon runs.
Ken Chapman, a retired probation officer, has lived on a rural road in the heart of the Applegate Valley since 1971. The road is about a mile long, and he says growers own six of the properties he drives past on the way home.
“One of the advantages of it being illegal was people had to be considerate of their neighbors. After medical marijuana, we have neighbors who are far less than considerate,” he said.
In the past decade, the growers on the road have built greenhouses, brought in noisy fans four feet in diameter, and “grow lights that look like a Carnival cruise line,” Chapman said.
The road is zoned as a residential area, but he said he’s had little luck getting county officials to respond to his complaints about what he called the “industrial practices” going on next door.
“They cannot regulate it,” he said. “If I have 31 chickens in my yard, in a residential area, it violates county land use laws. But you can have 500 marijuana plants, and they won’t deal with it.”
Chapman has conflicting feelings about Oregon’s vote to legalize marijuana. “Perhaps if it becomes a commercial operation, they’ll be able to do something,” he said. But he’s also skeptical about the state’s ability to effectively regulate the recreational market. “Points east, it’s still not legal. We’re just going to become a huger export market,” he says.
Peter Buckley, a democrat, represents south Jackson County in the state legislature and advocated for legalization. He agrees that the OMMP’s lose regulations have made life difficult for some in the county. Buckley said his office periodically receives calls from people living next to mini-pot farms in residential areas.
“That’s not what the program intended. We didn’t intend to set up these grey area black market type of operations in neighborhoods. It’s absolutely unacceptable,” he said.
Buckley says the legislature is interested in taking steps that would place tougher regulations on where medical marijuana is grown, who can grow it, and how it is distributed.
Chelsea Rose, the archeologist, sees things a little differently. She said marijuana has been the backbone of a counter-culture renaissance in Southern Oregon. It has attracted a young workforce and pumped cash into a region that has steadily lost timber jobs and was hit harder by the housing recession than almost any other part of the Northwest. “There’s a lot of vibrancy to this area right now,” she said.
Seasonal Work For Good Wages
At harvest time, the region attracts trimmers who help cut, clean, and cure marijuana buds. They can earn as much as $30 an hour during the season, about the same hourly wage as an architect in nearby Medford.
The trimmers arrive just as the tourist season is winding down. With pockets full of cash, they help keep the local businesses in the valley open.
Gabriella Ruysula co-owns a catering company in the valley, Fulcrum Dining, and works part-time pouring wine at the local wineries. “Around this time of year, every year, we see people come in with hundred dollar bills and buy cases of wine at a time,” she says.
At a time of year, the Applegate fills with music and art. At the Applegate River Lodge, the Scott Pemberton Trio, a popular Portland band, plays to a room filled with people from all over the country.
The lodge features bands every Wednesday night during the fall and winter. Out on the back deck, people smoke marijuana from vaporizers and glass bowls and talk shop about which strains produce the best high, and what types of mold have been affecting this year’s harvest.
Just down the road is Williams, an unincorporated town in Josephine County.
In 2011, an Associated Press investigation looked at the zip codes of participants in the OMMP, and named Williams Oregon’s pot capital. The AP found then that nearly 20 percent of Williams’ population was registered to grow or consume marijuana.
People in town still bring the story up in conversation, and said they don’t enjoy their town’s new notoriety.
In the center of town, a young woman named Angel Green serves organic vegan and raw fare out of a food cart called the One Love Cafe. The food — mock tuna nori rolls with sprouted pate and avocado, homemade organic chai, cold pressed juice — sells for Portland prices.
Green worked as a personal chef for a wealthy family and moved to Williams this fall. “I love the farming community” she said.
“There are so many people growing these amazing fruits and vegetables and medicinal plants.” Green says her customers include a mix of locals and seasonal marijuana workers. “They tip pretty well. I have some customers that tip almost 100 percent of their bill. They really like their green juice,” she said.
But Green says there are also hungry people hanging around town who hoped to find trimming work, but either didn’t get hired, or had to leave a bad situation abruptly. She says she often gives people food in exchange for help washing the dishes.
Others in the community point out that while marijuana has helped filled the void left by the shrinking timber industry, the future it provides for workers is uncertain.
Jennifer Philipi owns Rough and Ready Lumber, the last remaining sawmill in Josephine County. Phillipi says in her lifetime, marijuana has become a much more accepted part of the local culture. As a child, she remembers signs hanging in local businesses that read “no hippy patronage” and the movie theater in town wouldn’t admit people with long hair.
Phillipi said Rough and Ready sells its leftover bark dust to a company that turns the material into compost and soil products, which are in high demand thanks to the region’s marijuana growers. She said that some of the mill’s customers stayed in business during the recession by selling fencing material to growers.
But while she sees some positive economic effects from marijuana, she also sees drawbacks.
“People are getting jobs that don’t provide future pension plans, and health insurance. I think once young people get off into those jobs, it’s hard to come back sometimes. You don’t have a resume that looks good” she said.
Phillipi didn’t support legalization; she would have preferred to wait a few years, and watch how Colorado and Washington handle issues like intoxicated drivers. But she does see the benefits. “This community is so desperate for funds any tax revenue would be important,” she said.
From Medical Marijuana To Recreational Pot
For another longtime resident who has been involved with growing marijuana, the benefits of legalization outweigh any down sides. Richard Davis is the co-owner of the Applegate River Lodge and a medical marijuana grower. He’s lived in the Applegate for 23 years.
“Nothing’s going to change,” Davis said, when asked about Oregon’s move to legalize recreational pot. “It’s pretty much legal in the Applegate anyway… whether it’s legal or illegal, the product is still going to be in demand.”
Davis has curly grey hair and a quick raspy laugh. He slips verses of songs and prose poetry that he writes into his conversation, and sometimes goes by the nickname Pa Butt. “This is best time of year. At harvest time everyone lightens up,” he said.
Davis has no problem with the government taxing pot and treating it like a business. Marijuana is like wine, he said. The growers who produce a top quality product will always be in demand. “You’re going to be able to charge the bucks for it too.”
Davis’s medical marijuana plants occupy a quarter of an acre, not far from the road, on a prime, well-irrigated piece of land. His dozen plants are the size of small fruit trees, laden with spiky marijuana buds.
He spends many afternoons in the garden, snapping leaves off his plants to allow more light and air to reach the developing flowers. A tame deer Davis raised on goat milk follows him as he works, nibbling the marijuana leaves that fall to the ground.
“As far as a crop, they’re pretty trouble free. A lot easier than orchids, I can guarantee you that,” he said.
Nearby, a large white tent shelters hundreds of marijuana buds that hang to dry. The tent was a gift from celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey, who featured Davis and the Applegate River Lodge in an episode of the Fox Show “Hotel Hell.” Ramsey used the episode as an anti-drug polemic and told Davis his marijuana use was destroying the lodge. Davis dismisses the host, and his conclusion, with a laugh.
“Here’s a glamorous camping tent. I’m using it as a processing tent for pot,” Davis said.
Inside the tent and an old shed on the property, dozens of pounds of marijuana hang to cure. Davis dries it for a little more than a week at 70 degrees. Davis loves to talk, but like many growers, he deflects questions about what exactly happens to all this marijuana next. “I don’t sell any of it. I give it all away,” he said.
Davis said he pays people $20 an hour to help him out. The workers include a young man who only wants to give his first name, Martin. Martin’s father worked the night shift at a local dairy. He recently lost his job, and the family was evicted. Davis offered to let them live in a trailer on his farm.
“After my dad got fired, we came down here to live with Richard. He’s that type of guy. Big heart. I’ve been working here on his plants, trying to make some money,” Martin said.
Martin says the other trimmers he works with have a wide range of goals. He works with retirees looking to earn money so they can afford to travel, a young single mother who needs extra income, and college students trying to pay off their loans.
Martin has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Oregon, and said that while he’s tried marijuana, he doesn’t smoke it. “It’s just not my thing,” he said. He doesn’t see his work on the farm as a long term career. His goal is to help his family buy a home. He has his eye on a cheap pice of land in Shasta California for a trailer, and he thinks he could earn enough in a season or two trimming marijuana to buy it. “I see it as an opportunity to get a step ahead, where I want to be,” he said.
“Once we get a home, and can live that American dream, I want to start a career somewhere else,” he said. He’s always wanted to work with cars, and maybe open an auto shop that does custom building.
But he said the prospect of a new legal market for recreational marijuana is already starting to change Martin’s thinking. “Yes, I would definitely think about getting more into the business.”