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Willamette Week, March 29, 1995, pp. 20 ff.

Reefer Madness: Portland Wages a New War on Pot

By Maureen O'Hagan
photographs by Vince Radostitz [omitted here]

Reefer Madness With his large hands, sunken cheeks and worn blue jeans, 56-year-old Eric Grcich looks more like an ailing laborer than a suspected criminal. Unfortunately for Grcich, he is both. Earlier this month, police searched the North Portland home Grcich shares with his sister, Joan Thomas, and found 20 mature marijuana plants and 21 seedlings growing under high-powered lights in her junk-filled basement.

The pair could hardly deny knowledge of the illegal crop, so they simply cooperated and hoped for mercy.

In fact, police were compassionate, even convivial. Though they marched Grcich and Thomas into the back seat of a patrol car for transport to the county jail, they didn't arrest Thomas' teen-age daughter, who quietly fed her toddler while handcuffed as the officers searched the house. The police brought the quivering Thomas a glass of water at her request and even had a few laughs with the pathetic suspects. In the end, Thomas says, she was just relieved that they were hauled away before their 75-year-old mother returned from a shopping trip.

"We're pretty low-key," Washington State Police Officer John Hess told one suspect sympathetically. "In and out. We're out of your hair."

Cops don't have a reputation for telling jokes when they bust most drug dealers. But members of the Marijuana Task Force aren't performing your typical police work.

The task force's mission was conceived last fall by the Portland Police Bureau's drug and vice division and begun just a month ago. It is the first Portland-area task force ever to target indoor marijuana growers and carries the endorsement of the city, the Multnomah County district attorney, and Oregon and Washington state police. The task force started with a $20,000 federal grant and employs six officers full time at a cost to their respective agencies of at least $250,000 a year.

The task force has been extremely successful, arresting 22 indoor growers and seizing almost 2,000 plants in its first 18 days. Yet its efforts come at a time when three voter-approved ballot measures will put the squeeze on already overcrowded prisons, when budgets are being slashed at all levels, and when heroin-related deaths have reached an all-time high.

Law enforcement officials deny the new attack on home growers is misplaced. Portland Police Chief Charles Moose says he had "no problem whatsoever" with authorizing the task force, because marijuana use is again on the rise, especially among young people. His boss, Mayor Vera Katz, gave her stamp of approval because marijuana use is so widespread it may be the state's No. 1 cash crop.

District Attorney Michael Schrunk's endorsement was less enthusiastic, but he nevertheless believes the task force is needed. "No cop or DA wants to chase people with baggies of marijuana for their whole career," he said. "But [marijuana] contributes to problems in the community. You have to devote some resources to quality-of-life problems."

A 1994 survey of Oregon public school students reported that 16.8 percent of 11th-graders had smoked pot during the previous month, compared with 12.9 percent in 1990. Marijuana seizures in 1994 went up 166 percent.

Heroin use, however, has skyrocketed even faster. Last year, 178 people in Oregon died from the highly addictive drug, up from 100 in 1992. Heroin seizures have gone up by 700 percent since 1993.

So why are police going after pot all of a sudden?

"In my opinion marijuana is a larger problem [than heroin] in terms of social damage in this region," says Capt. Bob Brooks, commander of the Portland police drug and vice division.

There's more to this war on pot than police will admit. A crucial element, one they don't often vocalize, is that they can't lose. Indoor marijuana growers are more often bungling, two-bit crooks than dangerous drug kingpins. This is no hard-fought contest between good and evil with more or less even odds. It's a battle in which police have to expend little effort but are almost guaranteed considerable spoils. Where violence is scarce but arrests are numerous. Where the accused are so obsequious they sometimes chip in to help police bag the evidence.

Between Feb. 28 and March 17, the six-officer team - made up of three Portland Police Bureau drug and vice detectives, one drug and vice sergeant, a Washington state trooper and an Oregon state trooper - has seized 1,919 marijuana plants and arrested 22 indoor growers in 14 busts. About half the arrests were "knock and talks" - police simply knocked on doors and were given permission to search by the resigned suspects.

"I was pushing [my luck]," explains one small-time grower who led police to the 12 plants in his basement. "I knew it wasn't going to be worth it to me to push it anymore."

The accused, most of whom have no prior convictions, face 16 to 18 months or more in prison and could forfeit their homes and cars.

"We don't consider it any less harmful a drug than any of the others," Brooks told WW. "It's a very powerful intoxicating drug that's addictive in its own way. Once kids get started on pot, they don't go to school anymore, they don't concentrate, they don't learn, they don't grow and they don't turn into good productive citizens. True, they're not violent, but they're also lost."

Marijuana grown indoors - a West Coast specialty - is more potent and grows more quickly than its old-fashioned outdoor cousins. In fact, indoor marijuana-growing operations - called "grows" by police - are more prevalent than most Portlanders imagine. "There's probably one grow on every city block," says task force member Kim Keist, only half joking. Would-be growers can learn all they need to know from readily available instruction books, an address on the Internet or a subscription to 'High Times,' a New York magazine about marijuana. At least five specialty shops in the metropolitan area sell all the equipment needed to grow a crop in any basement: high-powered light bulbs, transformers, hydroponic feeding and watering tubes, and even automatic room deodorizers to cover up the plant's distinctive aroma. Although supply store managers insist their shops are legitimate, it's difficult to imagine investing several hundred dollars - the cost of one light set-up - to grow anything else.

"These stores say they sell the equipment to grow orchids or tomatoes," says Sgt. Jim Hudson, who leads the task force. "You can't do that commercially [in a basement]. They end up being the most expensive tomatoes you've ever seen in your life."

Though critics scoff that the war on drugs is a farce, police have quietly battled the demon weed without breaking a sweat. Even without DEA money, marijuana doesn't cost as much to target as other drugs. "It's very cost-efficient for the citizenry," Hudson explains. "A lot of times with heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine, you can go out and follow these guys around for a week with a whole team of officers." With marijuana, he says, "we knock-and-talked one house and we got $3 million worth." Although such estimates of street value, based on DEA guidelines, are usually inflated (see "Doing Time," page 24), that single bust was still the largest indoor marijuana operation ever encountered by the drug and vice division.

Despite Oregon's longtime reputation for being lenient on pot (the state was one of the first to decriminalize possession in the 1970s), the state's anti-crime Legislature is making moves to join the get-tough-on-pot crusade.

[Picture caption: Sgt. Jim Hudson of Portland's drug and vice squad dismantles a basement grow.]

Rep. Jerry Grisham, R-Beavercreek, has introduced two bills to toughen criminal penalties for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. "We're trying to drive the cost of it up to make it prohibitive," he says. (Indoor marijuana typically sells for $350 to $500 an ounce.) Republican Reps. Liz VanLeeuwen of Halsey and Bill Markham of Riddle introduced a bill calling for the death penalty for drug dealers, including pot peddlers.

Although Brooks' rationale behind the anti-pot crusade may be expected, workers in the trenches can attest that police brass weighed more than just the drug's prevalence when it formed the task force. Cops knew that catching suspects would be as simple as following their police instincts - and their noses. A recent bust in Gladstone, possibly the biggest indoor growing operation in the state, shows just how easy it is.

Based on a tip, three task force officers knocked on the front door of a typical house near a Gladstone elementary school on March 7. Mary Slivka, a 50-year-old college graduate with a master's degree in linguistics, answered the door. When police asked her for permission to search the premises, she called her boyfriend, Harold Day, 43. He refused consent.

Unfortunately for the pair, the officers had already been overwhelmed by the skunky odor of marijuana. Day and Slivka were arrested and handcuffed while officers obtained a search warrant based on little more than the over-powering smell and a high electricity bill. By midnight, seven hours after they began searching the house, police had filled three pickup trucks with 1,505 marijuana plants and growing equipment.

It was the largest grow in Portland police history, yet the cops rounded up the suspects without even drawing their weapons. The task force was so ecstatic that members took a photograph of themselves hamming it up with the marijuana fronds as props.

In fact, assignment to the marijuana detail sometimes gives cops a breather from the tensions of street work - and it's easy to see why. Who wouldn't laugh at the couple who froze through the winter because their 1,505-plant farm in the basement prevented them from calling a furnace repairman? Who wouldn't roll their eyes at the toothless, 55-year-old grower whose biggest worry was getting to his methadone program in the morning? Or at the basement grower dumb enough to keep detailed records of his daily growing activities, including the expenses of feeding his hired hands lunch and the profits he made selling his product?

The cops even laugh at themselves. The two state troopers on the task force had to endure some good-natured ribbing when they showed up an hour late for one bust after becoming hopelessly lost (they managed to score 41 plants for the day anyway).

But timing doesn't matter much with marijuana. Cocaine and heroin dealers can easily flush their product the instant police knock on their doors, but there is no quick disposal method for marijuana growers.

"They can't get rid of it," Hudson says. "That's why we don't crash through the door trying to beat somebody to the toilet like you do when somebody is dealing crack cocaine. "If it takes them three or four minutes to answer the door, we don't really care." Another bonus for the task force is that few marijuana growers are violent. Although police found 10 weapons in the first 14 grows, none of the suspects threatened to use them. One weapon was buried under piles of dirty laundry. "They're not criminals," says Sue Wiswell, an organizer for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "They don't even look like criminals."

For the most part, Hudson agrees. "There's a percentage that are true crooks and are doing it because it's a more lucrative way to commit crimes with less of a chance of getting caught than robbing banks. Probably only 10 percent are like that. But for the most part, marijuana growers are not violent criminals.

The fact that most growers agree to plea arrangements usually eliminates the need for costly trials. "Most marijuana cases are situations where the grow operation is found on one's property," says Pat Birmingham, a Portland criminal defense lawyer. "It's rather ludicrous to say you didn't know that you had 50 plants in your basement."

Forfeiture laws, which allow police to seize property used in the commission of a crime or purchased with proceeds from a crime, sweeten the deal even more. The property - which can include cars, homes, real estate and other assets - is sold and the proceeds are divided among the law enforcement agencies responsible for the bust.

Forfeiture laws have helped pad the budgets of some law agencies, such as sleepy Sulfur, La. (population 20,125), which seized $5 million in assets in four years, much of it from travelers passing through on a busy interstate highway. Last year, the U.S. Attorney's Office seized $7.1 million in assets from Oregon criminals, an amount roughly equal to the office's entire annual budget. During the same period, the Portland drug and vice division seized more than $1.3 million in cash, vehicles and property (the division's annual budget is about $2.8 million).

Because forfeiture is a civil rather than criminal procedure, many of the accused need never be convicted of a crime. Although Oregon seizures do not top the list of forfeiture horror stories from across the country, defense lawyers argue that authorities can sometimes go too far.

"It is my opinion that the reason the government has spent the last three years by unbelievably stepping up the prosecution of marijuana growers is that marijuana growers are not dangerous and have assets," says Jenny Cook, a Portland defense lawyer. Paul Faber, a 41-year-old Portland drywaller, was sentenced to nearly five years in federal prison and lost a $72,000 house after being convicted of growing 99 marijuana plants in a coastal forest (Faber admits to cultivating only 25 and says the rest belonged to a partner.) Although police found harvested marijuana at his home, they seized a rental property he owned that was worth more. "I had no idea how hard they could slam you," Faber says. "I had no idea if I dried pot in my house they could take my house."

He spent nearly three months at the federal prison camp in Sheridan before being released on an appeal of the forfeiture. He hopes to cash in on a recent Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that ruled civil forfeiture violates the double-jeopardy clause of the U.S. Constitution. Although the U.S. Department of Justice is appealing the decision, dozens of Oregon prisoners subjected to civil forfeitures have filed motions to get out of jail based on the ruling. Faber is awaiting a May 5 hearing date in front of the Ninth Circuit Court.

Cops, district attorneys and other law enforcement officials say that people such as Faber simply get what they deserve. "If you've made a profit from crimes, it's appropriate for government to take that money away from you," says Gary Meabe, the Multnomah County deputy district attorney in charge of drug cases.

It's nearly 4 pm and Sgt. Hudson is sitting in a dark Northeast Portland living room with a petite young mother of two boys and two disabled girls. He smells marijuana in the dank air and believes it's coming from the basement. He has been there for more than two hours. But since the woman's boyfriend owns the house, and since he didn't give police permission to search, Hudson must stand guard over the woman and the house until his team arrives with a warrant.

By the time they make it to the basement, the woman's children have become very curious. The cops do their best to ignore them as the kids crane their necks at the top of the stairs like they're waiting for Santa Claus. One starts to cry as officers haul up 36 marijuana plants.

Police have grown accustomed to such heart-wrenching scenes. But the truth remains that many of the people caught in the Marijuana Task Force's net are bungling potheads with little going for them except their green thumbs. That's exactly what makes this latest war on pot so perplexing.

"My feeling and experience is that I think the resources used going after marijuana growers and users is misspent," says Birmingham, who has defended many pot offenders. "I've never had a marijuana user or grower commit violent acts. I've never had them commit crimes to support their habit. I never had a client commit a crime because marijuana made him do it."

Enforcement is even more zealous elsewhere in the country. In the September issue of 'The Atlantic Monthly,' writer Eric Schlosser tells the story of Edward Czuprynski, a lawyer and liberal activist in Michigan who was sentenced to 14 months in prison for possession of 1.6 grams of marijuana, about enough to roll one large joint.

Hardened drug felons such as Czuprynski and Faber continue to fill federal prisons. Robert Palmquist, a spokesman for the Sheridan pen, says 70 percent of the inmates there are drug offenders. He said statistics on how many were marijuana offenders were unavailable, but Wiswell says 40 percent of the prisoners in the Sheridan minimum-security camp are there for marijuana offenses.

Schlosser argues that the number of drug offenders in prisons today equals the total number of people imprisoned for all crimes 25 years ago. At about $14,600 a year per inmate, that's about $18.5 million to keep Sheridan's drug felons behind bars.

It's particularly irritating for the families of marijuana offenders, who say society would be better served if these inmates were on probation and allowed to work to support their families. Clearly, says Ruthann Davis, many of them aren't a threat to society. Her son Roderic Davis was sent to federal prison for conspiring to grow marijuana in 1992 after showing two men how to operate indoor growing equipment. When he needed eyeglasses, Davis says guards simply dropped him off in downtown Spokane and told him they'd return in a few hours to pick him up.

Even Hudson concedes that few marijuana growers are repeat offenders. "The ones making lots of money on it might be greedy enough to do it again," he says. "But compared to burglars or car thieves, there's no comparison. You catch a burglar and he's going to burgle again and again."

Considering everyone who has admitted puffing pot - from Vice President Al Gore to House Speaker Newt Gingrich - not to mention related issues such as the lack of prison beds and the increase in hard-drug use, the latest war on marijuana seems an odd deployment of resources.

"To me, it's one of the worse travesties of the war on drugs," says Wiswell. "They should concentrate on crimes against other human beings."

[Picture caption: Portland police say their property room, festooned with trophies from the war on pot, is the "best drying room in the state."]

[Sidebar:]

NO RHYME OR REASON

A Roseburg jury earlier this month convicted Larry Gibson, a former Douglas County sheriff's deputy, of manslaughter in the death of his toddler son. Oregon sentencing guidelines recommend 16 to 18 months behind bars for the crime.

A small-time marijuana grower in Oregon with no prior convictions faces the same penalty.

"That's insanity to me," says Sue Wiswell, a Portland organizer for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which has lobbied the U.S. Sentencing Commission to reduce penalties for marijuana offenders.

Sentencing guidelines aren't the only weapons in the war on pot that make no sense. In fact, there is little logic or consistency in marijuana laws, where punishment often doesn't fit the crime.

Drug offenses can be prosecuted at both the state and federal levels, although the U.S. Attorney's Office in Oregon won't consider a case unless it involves at least 100 marijuana plants. If police find 99 plants at a crime scene, the case is bumped back down to state courts.

In the state system, a grower is often charged with three counts: manufacturing, possession and delivery of a controlled substance. "When we catch someone with [enough drugs to show] it's not an amount for personal use, we charge the person with delivery, even though we haven't seen them actually transfer it," says Gary Meabe, a Multnomah County deputy district attorney who handles drug cases. The charges are bolstered if police find more than 150 grams (about 51/2 dry ounces, or the amount of marijuana produced by one to five plants).

Police searching a house look for items from a prescribed list that indicates a "commercial marijuana offense." If they find at least three items from the list - say, plastic bags, $300 in cash and a weapon - the charges become even more severe. In such cases, state sentencing guidelines call for 16 to 18 months or more in prison, although a judge may sentence the offender to probation.

Despite such lengthy sentences, defendants in state cases fare better than their counterparts at the federal level because of tougher federal mandatory minimums and because federal prosecutors often tack on extra charges such as conspiracy.

[Photo caption: Police "knock-and-talked" their way into Leroy Kuntzman's home.]

Portlander Roderic Davis, for example, was sentenced in 1993 to five years in federal prison for conspiracy to manufacture marijuana. A golf equipment salesman, Davis made the mistake of showing two other men how to set up and operate indoor growing equipment. Although police searched diligently, they found no plants at Davis' home (they had confiscated marijuana that belonged to the other men), and Davis claims there were no plants present when he gave the men instructions.

Before sentencing, Davis wrote the judge, pleading for mercy. "I have experienced a powerful prosecution that forces you to stipulate to a quantity of marijuana plants I have nothing to do with to avoid a mandatory minimum sentence to a conspiracy I was unaware of," he wrote to U.S. District Judge James Redden. "I would relate it to playing cards with a crooked dealer who stacked the deck, dealt me a bad hand and forced me to fold."

Redden says his hands were tied because of mandatory sentencing laws. "Frequently, you get unjust results," he told WW. "He gets credit for every plant [found with the other men] under minimum mandatory laws. The fact that he never even saw it [is irrelevant]."

Redden adds that the practice of trading information for reduced sentences sometimes means that the most guilty do the least time. "The kingpin of a conspiracy knows everybody that's involved in it...," he says. "When apprehended, he just starts talking and turns everybody in."

Quirks in the marijuana laws compound the problems with mandatory minimum sentences. For sentencing purposes, judges consider the number of plants instead of their actual weight. For 49 plants or fewer, federal Drug Enforcement Administration guidelines calculate each plant will produce 100 grams of marijuana, or about 31/2 ounces, whether the plant is a 15-foot monster or a 3-inch seedling. For 50 plants or more, the estimated yield jumps to 1,000 grams, or 2.2 pounds per plant.

"They say that these plants, no matter what size they are, what stage of development, weigh 2.2 pounds," Wiswell complains. "'We don't care if they're dead; that's what they weigh.'" Using that logic, a federal judge sentenced Wiswell's cousin, Ben Nussbaum, a longtime postal worker, to four years and nine months in prison after police found 131 root balls in his basement, even though there was no usable marijuana on them and they couldn't be propagated into new plants.

Under these DEA guidelines, there is no difference between a basement grower with 100 plants and a person caught importing 220 pounds of dried marijuana from Thailand (a pound would just about fill two shoeboxes) or a person who sells 100 grams of heroin (enough for about 1,000 doses).

"There just seems to be no consistency, no rhyme or reason," says Ruthann Davis. Her son Roderic will be released from federal prison in about two years.

-- MO'H

[End]

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