Trial in Ore. opens window on medical marijuana dark side

GRANTS PASS, Ore. — A drug trial in Grants Pass has opened a rare window into the dark side of a large-scale medical marijuana operation.

The prosecution’s star witness testified Thursday that large growers regularly use the cover of providing medicine for patients to pile up hundreds of pounds of illegal weed they can sell for big money on the black market at low risk of going to jail.

“Everybody’s in this for money. Don’t let anybody fool you,” Thomas Bletko, 51, testified in Josephine County Circuit Court. “It’s all done under the guise of being medical.”

Bletko turned state’s evidence in the trial of Brenda Thomas, the manager of the Hemp and Cannabis Foundation clinic in Grants Pass. The foundation, headed by longtime Portland marijuana activist Paul Stanford, has clinics in nine states, where doctors examine patients looking for state authorization to use pot to treat medical conditions.

Thomas has pleaded innocent to felony charges of manufacture and distribution of a controlled substance.

Police raided Thomas’ rural Wilderville home in October 2009 after a Las Vegas couple pulled over in a traffic stop on Interstate 5 near Ashland told investigators that they bought the pound of marijuana found in their car from Thomas. Investigators found 200 pounds of marijuana, much of it processed. The street value of that much marijuana is about $500,000.

Under Oregon’s medical marijuana law, patients can have someone else grow pot for them, but growers cannot charge patients for the marijuana they produce. They can only collect for expenses, such as electricity and fertilizer.

According to testimony, Thomas and Bletko were careful to have enough medical marijuana cards to cover the 72 plants in the ground. But when police raided the property, they had drying plants and processed marijuana amounting to 200 pounds, far more than the 19.5 pounds of processed pot authorized by holding medical cards for 13 patients.

Bletko, who testified after pleading guilty to a reduced charge and being sentenced to probation, said he was looking for a place to grow “my prescription” when a fellow grower introduced him to Thomas.

Thomas was looking for a grower, Bletko testified, and they reached an agreement: he would grow the marijuana, Thomas would trim it, they’d provide their 13 card-holding patients with the marijuana the patients were entitled to under law, give eight pot plants to the grower who had introduced Bledko and Thomas, and each take half of the remainder.

“You don’t grow half a million dollars worth of pot for medical patients,” Bletko said.

The pot that wasn’t going to patients was “going to be sold for profit. Most of it was being sold in Portland and Seattle,” he said.

At the going rate of $2,250 per pound, they each stood to clear $100,000 to $200,000 for the year’s work, Bletko said.

Under cross-examination, defense lawyer Foster Glass tried to show that Bletko regularly moved in on women to grow marijuana and refused to leave.

Bletko said he moved his trailer onto Thomas’ property and laid out his rules: No selling to anyone off the property, who could get pulled over by police and bring the heat down on the growers. No bud trimmers were allowed on the property without medical marijuana cards. And no unnecessary visitors.

According to a search warrant affidavit, the Las Vegas couple told police they were introduced to Thomas by Thomas’ sister. They bought three-quarters of a pound from Thomas for $1,000 and got more for helping trim buds and other work on the property, even though they did not have medical marijuana cards.

Bletko testified that he built a water tower for irrigation, a fence to screen the garden from view, and a chain-link fence around the rest of the garden to keep out thieves. He hired someone with a small tractor to dig the holes for the plants. He said he patrolled the perimeter every night, his pit bull dog on a leash in one hand and a gun in the other.

After the harvest, Bletko said they hanged the plants upside down on the walls of the garage and dried them with propane heaters. When the garage was full, they hanged plants in the house to dry. They were 10 days into trimming and had 20 days to go when the raid came.

Bletko said he delivered marijuana to Thomas at the clinic three or four times and she would come home with money.

“I don’t know what she sold it for on the back side,” Bletko said.

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