Oregon Dispensary Busts: Lives Devastated for Nothing

The final arguments have been heard in the last of three prosecutions that targeted medical marijuana dispensaries in northern, southern and eastern Oregon.  In the end, after tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars spent, hundreds of police and prosecutor hours wasted, dozens of felony drug charges and five families’ lives devastated, the worst sentence handed out to the “drug kingpins” was 140 days in jail.

The three cases all involve friends of mine in the Oregon marijuana movement. Here in Portland, Sarah Bennett and Don Morse were charged with multiple felonies over their operation of The Human Collective, a medical marijuana dispensary in Washington County. This was before Oregon’s legislature had passed HB3460, the bill that legalized and regulated our medical marijuana dispensary system.

While multiple outlets opened up all around Oregon, especially in pot-loving Portland, most were operating with a sly wink-and-a-nudge around the medical marijuana laws’ allowances for patient-to-grower reimbursements for supplies and utilities, which, surprisingly enough, always seemed to equal $10 per gram. The Human Collective, on the other hand, created a strict system of accounting to ensure they were following the incomplete law the best they could. In fact, now-Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and other elected officials toured the facility, citing it as a model of how regulated medical marijuana dispensaries could operate.

But The Human Collective was just outside the friendly confines of Portland’s Multnomah County and just inside Washington County, where Sheriff Pat Garrett vows to “aggressively fight drug trafficking organizations.” The Sheriff and other agencies raided The Human Collective and other homes and buildings associated with Bennett and Morse. They ended up charging the two with multiple felony counts of manufacture and delivery of drugs, as well as child endangerment against Bennett, who was pregnant with a child at the time.

In the end, Bennett and Morse received only probation. They’ve relocated The Human Collective just down the street from its previous home, but within Multnomah County’s borders, and are functioning as a legal, licensed dispensary. Sheriff Garrett accomplished absolutely nothing in stopping this “drug trafficking organization,” but he did terrorize a pregnant woman, her family, and her friends, and made acquiring medicine more difficult for sick people.

Out in Eastern Oregon, my friend Bill Esbensen ran the 45th Parallel, a dispensary near the Oregon/Idaho border. Oregon is the only medical marijuana state that does not require state residency to apply for a card.  So many patients from my hometown Boise-Meridian-Nampa-Caldwell, Idaho, metroplex would drive less than an hour eastbound on I-84 to visit Oregon doctors, get their Oregon medical marijuana card, and shop at 45th Parallel.

Some of those patients, unsurprisingly, began taking their medicine back to Idaho and many got busted by the Idaho State Police, which began tracking the freeway corridor from Boise to Ontario, Oregon, for marijuana stops.

Eventually, Esbensen was busted for running the dispensary and charged with multiple drug trafficking felonies. Esbensen was convicted at trial and sentenced to 140 days in jail and credit for time served. (Unfortunately, his partners didn’t take a plea deal and are serving eight years each in the Idaho State Penitentiary.)

Finally, in Medford, my friends Lee & Lori Duckworth have taken their plea deal in the Southern Oregon NORML case. The area in which the Duckworths live is in Oregon’s portion of the so-called “Emerald Triangle,” famous for its outdoor marijuana grows. Lori was the executive director of Southern Oregon NORML and ran dispensary services for medical marijuana patients.

The Sheriff, Mike Winters, has always opposed medical marijuana and his office committed to “Operation Storefront,” a coordinated multi-agency effort to go after growers and dispensaries in Southern Oregon. Keith Mansur of the Oregon Cannabis Connection newspaper estimated well over $50,000 was spent on the Duckworths’ case. Lee & Lori were charged with 22 felonies, some involving delivery of marijuana within a school zone. Yesterday, Lee & Lori were allowed to plead guilty to just one Class C Felony each, no jail time, a $300 fine, and 11 months of probation, after which the felonies may be expunged to misdemeanors.

Two years ago, these law enforcers decided to threaten three dispensary owners with long prison sentences. Last year, the Oregon legislature legalized what they were doing. This year, Oregon will vote to make recreational marijuana legal. I am so happy me and my friends will be free to vote on that in November… as well as voting on some new county sheriffs who respect the will of the voters.

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