Yes, We Have No Tomatoes

Portland's indoor gardening shops sell all you need for homegrown medical weed—except advice.

Michael Johnson entered the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program two years ago, decades after he quit smoking pot recreationally, to help cope with a debilitating back injury. The 55-year-old residential contractor also began cultivating marijuana plants inside his Southeast Portland home, for himself and two other patients for whom he is a registered caregiver. Always a bit of a green thumb, he figured it shouldn't be too difficult to grow what's essentially just a weed. 

"When I was a kid, we used to take seeds and throw them along the riverbank, and there would always be something there," he says. "I didn't think anything beyond that.” 

As Johnson soon learned, indoor gardening is a difficult and pricey pursuit. He initially made several small mistakes, like trying to use aluminum foil to reflect light. He also had to deal with spider mites, a pest common to the Pacific Northwest and particularly to marijuana growers. 

And he was surprised by the sheer cost of maintaining a grow site. Johnson estimates his expenses average between $100 and $130 per ounce. He receives a financial assist from the two patients he grows for, who reimburse him for supplies.

Another thing he quickly learned: "You don't talk about it."

Although Oregon state law allows OMMP patients to grow a minimal amount of marijuana at a time—24 total plants, though only six can be mature—the ongoing federal prohibition of the plant still makes many growers nervous about even discussing the process. (Johnson agreed to a telephone interview but would not permit a visit to his home.) 

And nowhere is that nervousness more apparent than in so-called “grow shops.” 

In Portland, indoor gardening supply stores have become nearly as ubiquitous as strip clubs and breweries. Based on WW's review of online and yellow pages listings, there are now more than 20 such businesses in the city. 

Ask owners how much of their business comes from growers of medical marijuana, however, and they will say "zero percent." At many stores, "marijuana" is a forbidden word. Most have strict policies against advising customers on anything related to growing pot, legal or otherwise. 

But with 7,193 registered growers in Multnomah County alone, it's fair to assume the amount of marijuana-related business coming through grow shops is much higher than "zero percent."

"In a grow store, everyone is talking about 'tomatoes,'" says Don Morse, director of Tigard's Human Collective clinic. "'My tomatoes are getting ready to ripen,' or 'I'm having a problem with leaf discolorization on my tomato plants.'  

It's a game retailers are forced to play, according to Reid Rodgers, owner of Portland Hydroponics & Organics. It's not just the fear of a federal conspiracy charge, he says: Stores sign contracts with wholesalers promising not to discuss the cultivation of marijuana in regard to their products. 

Some deal with the situation differently than others. At Roots Garden Supply on North Interstate Avenue, a sign below the cash register warns that anyone asking about marijuana may be refused service. 

Others will simply "redirect" the conversation. If someone comes into Rodgers' store looking for advice on growing marijuana, he informs them that talking about medical marijuana is a federal offense and ends the discussion. Rodgers says that happens "very frequently."

This "game" is another example of the many ways the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act, which passed in 1998, fails the very patients it was intended to help. Because dispensaries are outlawed in Oregon, patients must identify growers to provide them with their medicine, or grow it themselves. 

But the state does not offer any information on how to find growers, nor on how to grow. (The OMMP website states that questions regarding finding seeds or plants fall outside the program's purview, and provides a link to Google.) And patients can't solicit help from the most readily available resource: the grow shops popping up all over the metro area.

"Patients are given cards with no direction from the state, then just kicked out to the curb," says Mike Mullins, who teaches courses on marijuana growing through Portlandsterdam University, a business that offers horticulture, activism and cooking classes to OMMP patients. "The only option the state gives them at this point is to send them to the black market."

Morse says the Human Collective—which skirts current state laws regarding dispensaries by essentially operating as a co-op—is pushing the Legislature to put laws in place that would safeguard the ability of medical marijuana patients to seek advice in grow shops. 

For now, Oregon's 57,389 medical marijuana patients must turn to one another for advice. Johnson says he recently attended a meeting of legal growers in La Grande, a small town in a county—Union—with just 307 registered OMMP patients. About 100 people showed up.

"It was phenomenal to see such a crowd, with this marijuana stigma," he says. "Keep in mind, you're still taking risks. This is still a closed, taboo type of field. To have that many people show up at one of these meetings was amazing."

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WWeek 2015

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