By Robert Lewis
MEFORD, Ore. – Judy Smith had zero interest in the headlines about marijuana being legalized in Oregon for recreational purposes back in 2014.
A middle-aged Oregonian, she didn't use pot, never had and didn't want to, nor did any of her friends and family members.
Advertisement - story continues below
But everything changed for Judy and her husband when the owner of the rundown neighboring property in their pleasant southwest Medford residential area became ill and couldn't make her house payments.
The neighbor's unsavory son suddenly returned from out of state and moved in permanently "to help." But trouble soon began when the back yard of the house became a pot "grow."
It got much worse when Judy (not her real name) complained to him about the smell of the plants as they began to mature. He showed her a hand gun and said, "I will kill you."
Since then, she said. "Every time I see him he gives me the finger."
Advertisement - story continues below
"I'm scared to death. I can't call the police because they can't really do anything to help us unless I prefer charges. We would move away, but who would want to buy our home for what it was worth before all this began? We're stuck here. This has ruined our lives."
Increasingly since 2014, when pot was legalized for recreational use in Oregon, a palpable sense of fear has descended on the tree-shaded streets of most of the small cities and the storied rural roads of sleepy southern Oregon's Rogue River Valley.
Flush from its legalization victories here and in Colorado and Washington, the marijuana steamroller is using its criminal heritage to crush opposition to the drug as it rolls into the community.
People of most walks of life are wondering whether they have made a terrible mistake in voting for legalization. But actually, in the majority of cases here in southern Oregon, they haven't. When it appeared again on the ballot in 2014 they voted it down.
But voters in the liberal districts in and around Portland and the region surrounding the city forced it on the rest of us.
Advertisement - story continues below
George Soros-financed organizations brought it to a state-wide ballot twice before, and it was voted down. But they kept nibbling at the liberal legislature to bring it to a vote again. Finally, in 2014 it won approval.
It's not just that elderly families like Judy's are cowering in their homes after being menaced by lawless neighbors cultivating an illegal amount of pot in their back yards.
Sinister late-night phone calls have been received by a Medford city councilor opposed to soft regulations on the sales of medical and recreational pot in the city.
Advertisement - story continues below
Citizens who express their unhappiness over the changes new marijuana laws are bringing to their once quiet lives find themselves bullied.
Veteran cops in rural areas are worried that Mexican cartels will use violence against the marijuana farms of locals.
The valley's mostly conservative population, made up of retirees, lifestyle ranchers and blue-collar workers, feels threatened by what they call "potheads" who are moving into the area.
There has been a significant increase in the number of young homeless and "trustafarian" young people hanging out in local towns and cities since marijuana was legalized, putting strains on charities already overloaded because of the weak local economy.
For generations, the major industry in the valley was lumber. The environmental movement's lawsuits to protect the spotted owl finished that back in the early '90s. Only two of the 10 large mills that once operated in the biggest city in the region, Medford, are still in business.
Economically, the valley has had only small victories since. It has witnessed. for instance, the growth of small boutique wineries. Over the past 20 years, their labels have become noted as something special among connoisseurs nationally.
But cannabis legalization here threatens to change the emerging romantic image of the area into something very different and quite ugly.
The Medford city councilor who has been threatened with anonymous phone calls was instrumental in the council backing off the passing of laws regarding sales of pot and its taxation.
At one public council meeting airing the proposed laws, the chamber was packed with poster-waving marijuana proponents. Councilors and city employees said later they had wondered about their personal safety.
This and other such incidents had the opposite affect on the council. The controversial items were not decided by the body, but instead were sent to voters. They appeared on the ballot in the momentous Nov. 8 election that elected Donald Trump president.
Voted in was ballot item 15-166, which "prohibits outdoor recreational and medical marijuana grows within residential areas."
But voters were against item 15-144 prohibiting marijuana retailers in Medford. Those like High Times will be able to continue their business, and there will no doubt be many more opening now that the city has made its decision.
Other cities and towns in the valley voted on similar measures. Those that need the revenue taxes on sales bring will not necessarily be welcoming retailers of pot. For instance, Central Point voted in a 3 percent sales tax, but rejected both recreational and medical marijuana sales within city limits.
Out in county farmland between Medford and Ashland, Talent resident Earl King experienced the intimidation of pro-weed people.
When he wrote a thoughtful letter to the editor of the Medford Mail-Tribune complaining about the impact of marijuana growers on his family homestead, legalization proponents responded with their own letters questioning everything from his sanity to his parents' marital status.
And all King did was suggest that county residents attend a hearing on rules covering the growth, processing and sale of marijuana.
Plus, he complained that his pastoral retirement retreat was being virtually ruined by "the bad smell (of marijuana plants), high fences with barbed wire on top blocking once open views, bright security lights shining (and) guard dogs barking throughout the night."
When he testified in person at a hearing held by the county supervisors, the opposition turned out to intimidate and shout him down.
King is typical of long-time residents who own small farms in the valley and are furious about inconveniences imposed on them by growers.
Their opponents are largely deployed by Cannabis TV, a former local college television station program that went off the air but has become a force in lobbying for the legalization of marijuana.
Whenever a voice is raised in the valley against marijuana sales, an email goes out to Cannabis-TV's followers urging them to write letters, pamphlet and turn out and wave posters or coerce opponents at hearings with menacing looks.
These protesters have been busy as city and county jurisdictions have been working on ordinances to control the growing, processing and sale of the drug.
But as Earl King's letter illustrates, some growers are not waiting for government officials to decide what they can and cannot do, and have gone ahead with their plantings.
But what about their security?
The cartels valley law enforcement is worried about have been a menacing presence in the forests above the Rogue River Valley for years.
Hidden in the trees, their small gardens of marijuana were tended by armed laborers who often had to carry buckets filled in nearby streams to water the plants.
"When I was investigating cartel grows finding dead bodies near them was a regular thing," said a retired Jackson County sheriff deputy, who asked to remain anonymous.
"I never knew the reason they had been killed," he said, "but my guess was they were looking for free weed."
He was responsible for finding and destroying these gardens hidden throughout thousands of acres of beautiful federal forests on Jackson County land.
The effort was funded by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This funding has been cut back drastically in recent years, thanks in part to the legalization trend and laissez-faire federal attitudes about marijuana.
Although the cartel marijuana grows in the mountains continue, they are much reduced from what they were in the retired deputy's time. What is grown now is illegally trucked to other parts of the U.S. where pot sales are illegal and demand is strong.
But current sheriff deputies are concerned that the cartels may be planning to use violence to take the pot harvested by licensed growers in the Valley.
They are also concerned about the considerable target the money from marijuana sales has become for cartels and freelance local villains.
It's a cash business. Whether they are storefront retailers, growers, processors or some other business involved in the marijuana trade, they can't put the money they earn in banks. Because federal law says marijuana is still illegal nationally, banking regulations prohibit them from doing business with money derived from it.
So most of them hire a company with an armored truck, manned by people armed to the teeth, to pick up their daily receipts.
The trucks take the cash to a fortified secret, central location where it is received, counted and tucked away in a vault.
Armored trucks and the secret locations are sitting ducks for cartels, which already have a presence in the valley.
Danger has also ramped up for valley first responders since pot was legalized.
Violence is always a problem for the Medford PD's patrolmen in cruisers who have to deal with street drug crime.
But valley firemen are risking their lives more often, too, as a result of fires caused by people trying to make honey oil extracted from marijuana buds using butane "cooking."
The practice has caused a growing number of house fires and injuries in the valley – and some of these fires have spread to nearby homes.
Today's pot is much more powerful than the kind users smoked in the 1970s, according to co-authors Bill Bennett and Robert White.
The THC, or the ingredient that causes the highs, is at least four times stronger in marijuana now.
Bennett is the former federal drug czar, and White is an attorney experienced with drug cases.
Their book "Going to Pot" said it is often found to be twice as strong as that. Other credible experts put it at as much as 28 times as powerful.
When local resident Dave Swaney reviewed the book for the Medford Mail-Tribune last year, the paper received two dozen letters questioning not the authors' credibility but the reviewers'.
This comment is typical of the letters:
What a bunch of garbage. Why does Mail-Tribune allow such trash to be published? Why is MT giving a fool like him a platform to espouse his prejudice, ignorant, unfounded claims? Dave Swaney thinks people should trust a book written by a former drug czar? You can't get anymore biased than that. Dave Swaney claims that cannabis is NOT less dangerous than alcohol? How so, Dave? The scientific, medical FACTS say otherwise. Ever heard of LD50? It's the measurement of median lethal dosage for a human. There isn't a measurable amount of cannabinoids that can cause death, because cannabis is NON-TOXIC. The simple fact is that cannabis CANNOT cause fatal overdose, and there has never been a recorded dead accurately attributed directly to consumption of cannabis or cannabis derived products.
Alcohol can shut down brain stem functions, preventing your body from doing things like keeping your heart beating and your lungs breathing when you're asleep, or more likely, passed out drunk from over-consumption of alcohol. Alcohol poisoning can lead to DEATH. You cannot accurately say that about cannabis. It seems you are using more propaganda and scare tactics to induce fear into the citizens.
Do you advocate for the illegalization of alcohol? Surely you would based on your prejudice against cannabis. You keep talking about cannabis use by children. Unless it's medically needed and recommended by a doctor, children wouldn't be consuming cannabis. Children also shouldn't be consuming alcohol yet we don't ban alcohol, nor does anyone sane advocate for children to use it. The "demotivational syndrome" has been debunked too many times. Recent studies show it helps the heart, since cannabis help prevent heart disease and can induce new cell growth.
THC is now widely available in foods such as candy that children find and eat accidentally, frequently resulting in brain damage and even death.
Reports are posted online from newspapers all over the U.S. of an increase in emergency room visits involving children eating food laced with pot since legalization.
To read about the crisis, all you have to do is google the words "pot," "candy" and "children."
Marijuana advocates play down pot's role as a "gateway drug" that leads to more dangerous drugs. But since its acceptance as a legal medicinal and recreational drug, the number of overdose deaths involving heroin in the nation has gone up a shocking 248 percent between 2010 and 2014.
This statistic comes from the Drug Enforcement Administration, which in August reiterated its listing of marijuana as a hallucinogenic drug that "can lead to abuse, addiction, serious health problems, and even death."
Although police in Medford at first were against the legalization of pot, they have decided that it may make policing it less complicated.
Time will tell, but according to Lt. Mike Budreau, leader of the department's MADGE (Medford Area Drug and Gang Enforcement) unit, decriminalizing the sale of it through a licensed retailer reduces his unit's work.
"But what keeps us busy is the bulk sales of marijuana," he said.
"We're getting a lot of contact from law enforcement in other parts of the country letting us know about shipments of marijuana originating from our jurisdiction. It's our job to investigate the shippers."
He described the problem as being the result of licensed and unlicensed growers in Medford trying to profit from harvests that turn out to be far more than they can sell locally.
"They start out as small-time operations, but once they realize how much they can make from the excess buds, they get into selling it to out-of-state buyers.
"But they have to ship it to them, and they are using the post office, UPS, Fed-Ex, to send it. They know that there is going to be some loss, but they see that as a cost of doing business.
"They are opening a big can of worms, because shipping cross country violates federal laws. If they get caught, they are looking at serious prison sentences if they are convicted."
Owner Dan Laird of the Box It shipping store in nearby Grants Pass was threatened with death earlier this year because a package full of pot that he mailed (without knowing its true contents) was seized by postal inspectors.
MADGE's main crime responsibilities are the control of meth and heroin sale and use, said Budreau, which means a lot of property crime – burglary, car and truck break-ins and so on.
So far, large amounts of pot is still third on their list of priorities.
But they are all-too-well-aware that marijuana's gateway role will eventually increase the sale and use of meth and heroin.
Another major concern among valley residents is the danger they face from drivers stoned on the much stronger pot.
No one is keeping track of how many terrible accidents are being caused by drivers too stoned to be safely operating a moving vehicle.
The number of arrests locally for driving under the influence of marijuana has not yet shown a remarkable increase. Part of this is due to the hassle police have to go through to make a bust.
First, they say it is impossible for a patrolling cop to know the difference between a car that is being driven erratically because of a driver who is texting on a cell phone, and one who is under the influence of cannabis.
But if the cop stops the driver and he or she turns out not to have a cell phone, a DUII (Driving Under the Influence of Intoxicants) arrest is going to result in paperwork that will end up taking half of a patrolman's shift to complete.
Fortunately, a breathalyzer has been introduced this year that analyzes the amount of THC in a person's blood, making DUII arrests much easier to make.
All of these changes in the Rogue Valley are its own fault for having ideal growing conditions for pot on what was, until recently, affordable land. Now, though, rural property values are skyrocketing in the Valley.
Millions of dollars are at stake for those who can find arable land that can be used for growing marijuana.
One mature cannabis plant can yield up to $2,500 in sales, a year after it was planted.
By comparison, according to experts, a pear tree down the road takes three years to grow from planting to fruit-bearing age. It then produces around 50 pounds a year in pears, depending on the growing conditions each year.
This year Bartlett pears are expected to generate around $340 a ton. One of the valley's heritage pear marketers is Harry & David, originators of the Fruit of the Month Club. In business in Medford since the early 1930s, the company has an estimated 2,000 acres of pear trees in production.
Contrast that with the estimated $5,000 that can be earned by one mature pot plant and you can appreciate what is driving the "green rush" in the area.
Otherwise respectable landowners in the valley do not have the patience Harry & David's founders have, so they are jumping into marijuana farming with a passion inflamed by the promise of high profits.
One already prosperous millennial couple with high-paying jobs have planted five acres in cannabis on leased land near their small farm on Suncrest Road just outside of Talent.
Jackson County, the most populated county in the area, is currently trying to decide how far the crops must be from the properties of neighbors. The original proposal of 250 feet has been reduced to 75 feet.
A grow must also be adequately irrigated and, most of all, protected from thieves who can cut down and cart away hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of mature plants in an hour's time.
And pressured by recent agricultural restrictions on what they can grow and how they can grow it, area farmers are happy to sell their land for considerably more than what it was worth just a few months ago to hopeful marijuana growers arriving from all over the nation.
Meanwhile, once quiet back yards in Rogue Valley cities and towns are now brimming with grass of another kind.
Residential rental property is hard to find in urban neighborhoods. At the moment less than 1 percent of houses, apartments and duplexes in the valley are available. Rents have increased 30 percent since legalization.
One reason houses are hard for renters to find is because many are becoming illegal indoor marijuana plantations. Behind their blacked out windows, every square inch of space is packed with plants, watering systems and gro-lights.
Even though land, both urban and rural, is dramatically increasing in value, residents not involved directly in the marijuana boom are torn between the obvious potential for economic growth in a community hard hit by the demise of the lumber industry and later by the 2007-8 real estate crash, and the unknown result of tacit involvement in profiting from a proven harmful drug.
Robert Lewis (a nom de plume) is a writer who resides in the Rogue Valley of Oregon.