WILLIAMS — More than 100 southern Oregon medical marijuana growers who farm in the epicenter of the state’s outdoor cannabis community met Thursday to voice concerns about how they’ll fit into a new regulated industry.
The meeting, held at a grange hall in Josephine County, was organized by the Oregon Sungrown Growers Guild. The group was established last spring to lobby for the interests of southern Oregon’s outdoor cannabis growers.
Oregon’s medical marijuana growers, historically wary of scrutiny and outside interference, are scrambling to organize so they can influence policy over the next year, as lawmakers and the Oregon Liquor Control Commission establish rules and regulations for the production, processing and sale of marijuana.
“This has been an outlaw industry way of life for decades and there is a safety in that for a lot of people that don’t want to plug in and work the 9 to 5 but still have a lot to offer and want to live a life they find meaningful,” said 36-year-old Casey Branham, who grows medical marijuana on his property outside of Jacksonville. “Coming into the light, if you will, is good, but this industry has to model and resemble the structure of how it was set up from the outlaw days.”
“It works,” he said. “It’s keeping people employed and keeping communities together. Cannabis keeps food on the table.”
Two groups have emerged: the Oregon Growers PAC, a political action committee spearheaded by Portland lawyer Amy Margolis, and the Oregon Sungrown Growers Guild, which was formed by a handful of outdoor growers in Williams. Williams, a rural community about 30 miles outside of Medford, and nearby communities are home to some of the highest concentrations of medical marijuana cardholders in the state.
The presence of a robust — and largely unregulated — outdoor cannabis industry sets Oregon apart from Washington and Colorado, the first states to regulate recreational marijuana.
Some of the outdoor harvest goes to medical marijuana patients or regulated dispensaries. And some of it moves into the illicit market out of state, where Oregon marijuana fetches top dollar.
“You can’t touch a dollar in Josephine or Jackson (counties) that doesn’t have weed on it,” said Branham, who has a degree in wildlife management from Humbolt State University and has grown medical cannabis for more than a decade. “It’s an indelible part of the framework of the community down here.”
Growers, who have operated for decades without oversight, worry regulators will interfere with their livelihoods by tinkering with medical marijuana program rules or restricting zoning for marijuana cultivation, said Branham.
Though Williams is home to ranchers and herb farms (the culinary variety), the community has become nearly synonymous with cannabis.
“If you look at it on Google earth, you will see that in some neighborhoods, three out of four properties have a noticeable cannabis grow and in other neighborhoods, it might be only one in four,” said Cedar Grey, 45, a Williams medical marijuana grower who is leading the effort to organize other producers in southern Oregon.
The fall harvest is over, but signs of the industry remain. Tall fences designed to keep marijuana from public view – a requirement of the medical marijuana law – are common.
“If there are fences that you can’t see over, usually it’s hiding marijuana,” said medical marijuana grower Maya Reames, 64, on a drive along Williams’ country roads.
While growers in this part of the state say they feel politically isolated from Portland and Salem, they have a strong commercial connection to the Willamette Valley, where dispensaries sell their products.
Over the past year, as the state’s regulated dispensary industry has taken shape, southern Oregon’s outdoor growers like Grey and Reames have come up with their own brands and marketing materials, as well as specialized strains and products they hope will appeal to urban markets like Portland, where dispensary owners say consumers tend to favor marijuana grown indoors.
Growers in southern Oregon have even changed the language that describes what they do. Recently outdoor producers recast themselves as sun grown growers.
“I just like the image,” said Reames, who sells her products under the Moon Flower Gardens brand. “It’s a really clear image: We utilize the sun.”
Outdoor growers argue state lawmakers and policymakers should take note of their approach, which requires far less energy than indoor cultivation.
“Warehouse growing is unsustainable,” said Linda Rice, a 63-year-old medical marijuana grower in Williams. “They use pesticides and herbicides. This is the opposite of how we grow.”
Thursday’s meeting, which featured a brief talk by state Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, a strong supporter of medical and recreational marijuana, was dominated by questions about the new law’s impact on small-scale growers who make their living off of marijuana. They said they don’t want to see any changes to the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program and they worry about potential zoning restrictions that could squeeze them out of the medical or recreational marijuana programs.
They worry, too, about out of state investors swooping into their small communities to establish lucrative marijuana production facilities.
Prozanski, who sits on a legislative committee that will take up issues related to the implementation of the new law, said he opposes any change to the medical marijuana program.
“My goal is not to allow the medical program to be folded into the (recreational) program,” said Prozanski. “At this stage that is my goal. Maybe sometime in the future, maybe there is a different conversation to have, but right now the best protection we have for the citizens of this state is to make sure we have separate and distinct programs.
“My goal,” he told the gathering, “is not to impact the small farmer.”
Grey, president of the outdoor growers guild, said the group is paying Bend lobbyist Jonathan Manton $ 4,000 a month to represent them during the upcoming session of the Oregon Legislature.
“This is not a time to rest,” said Paul Loney, a Portland lawyer who also works with the outdoor growers group, which includes his mother-in-law, a Williams cannabis grower. “Everybody is circling. Everyone wants to have their piece of the pie. They don’t mind elbowing you away from the table.
“You can’t allow them to elbow you away from the table,” said Loney.
— Noelle Crombie