November will mark 10 years since state voters approved the Medical Marijuana Act, granting residents with debilitating medical conditions legal access to marijuana.
To the federal government, Neil Buettner is a criminal, but to the state of Oregon, he's a compassionate caretaker, akin to a pharmacist, who doles out medicine that helps ill patients feel better.
In a plot in his front yard just outside Ashland city limits, Buettner grows marijuana.
"My patients are friends of mine, and I'm doing it to help them out," he said.
Since 2003, he has been a state-registered medical marijuana grower. He began growing marijuana for himself when he enrolled in the state program and he now tends plants for three other patients.
"It's impossible for me to eat — I'll go three or four days without eating — if I don't smoke (marijuana)," said a patient for whom Buettner grows marijuana.
The patient, a 43-year-old Ashland man, asked to remain anonymous because he fears he will lose his job if his supervisors know he smokes marijuana.
Buettner confirmed the identity of the man and his status as a medical marijuana cardholder and the man's name is known to the reporter and Tidings' editors.
Oregon law does not specifically protect workers from being fired for using medical marijuana at home. In January, the California Supreme Court ruled that employers could fire workers who use medical marijuana because federal law prohibits it.
"What I would like to see change is for there to be a little bit more protection for employees," the cardholder said. "At my company, the head CEOs would probably fire me even though I don't have driving duties and I don't smoke and then go to work. I'm not intoxicated at work."
His doctor approved him for the state program because he is HIV positive, he said.
"It helps my stomach to accept medicine and I have to take like two handfuls of pills everyday. So that's why I'm particularly doing it, because I have a real problem, a lifelong medical problem. It really does make a world of a difference."
Still, the patient admits there are problems with the current system.
"The majority of the people going in (to the medical marijuana program) are just wanting to get pot to smoke legally. They really are abusing."
Traveling doctors sometimes hold events in Oregon, and for a fee, they will hold a brief consultation with a patient and often sign them into the program. Dr. Philip Leveque, a Portland-area physician who signed thousands of patients into the state medical marijuana program, had his license to practice medicine revoked in 2004 because state officials said he didn't adequately examine patients and their medical histories.
The Oregon Medical Marijuana Program may, however, turn the patient down, depending on the claim and the standing of the doctor's license.
"Ten or 15 years ago, as a younger man, I would have done whatever I could to get a card to smoke legally," the patient said. "Me now, looking at it from the other end, I think we're really just dealing with abuse of the system."
Once admitted to the program, which requires an application fee of either $20 or $100 depending on the person's health plan, patients receive the right to use marijuana in their home and to have up to six mature plants and 24 ounces of marijuana at a time. The patient may also designate another person to grow the plants for them. One grower may produce plants for up to four cardholders.
Oregon Medical Marijuana Program officials check for drug-related convictions before clearing people to become medical marijuana growers.
Oregon law is unclear on where a grower should find the materials to begin growing marijuana.
"The OMMP cannot supply you with seeds or starter plants, or give you advice on how to grow medical marijuana," the program's Web site states.
According to the site, no money may change hands between growers and patients, however, the patient the Tidings spoke with said sometimes growers ask patients to help out with extra costs, such as expensive lighting systems to help the pot grow year-round.
Buettner said he doesn't charge his patients for the pot he grows, but sometimes he does worry that other people in town will try to make money off his plants.
"The thing I'm more concerned with is as far as security goes, is that some people look at it like there's a gold mine sitting in my front yard, instead of seeing it as medicine," he said. "This time of year I don't really leave the house too much."
Although critics of the program have alleged that some growers sell extra marijuana on the streets to drug users, Buettner said he thinks most growers are responsible.
"I would like to make it clear that every grower I know never goes to the plaza to offer their product or their medicine to anyone it doesn't belong to."
He said the arrests earlier this month of eight men allegedly involved in illegally growing medical marijuana in a Tolman Creek Road house and selling it on the street should be viewed as a rare occurrence.
"It just made people that are doing the right thing look bad," Buettner said.
According to Sgt. Scott Schuster with the Ashland Police Department, problems with medical marijuana growers and patients are few.
"Some cardholders use it for illegitimate use, for profit, but it's not a huge problem. We respect people who use it responsibly, but if it's a cover-up for an illegal profit-making business, we will enforce those violations."
Schuster said he supports the correct use of medical marijuana.
"I have relatives with cancer, and the reality is, if it helps terminally ill patients, more power to them. But we don't want medical marijuana showing up for sale at the high school," he said.