Medical marijuana and the money trail

Sheriff Mike Winters' efforts to prevent medical marijuana patients from obtaining concealed handgun licenses has cost more than $13,000 in outside legal fees, plus the equivalent of $20,000 in time spent by Jackson County's in-house attorney.

"That's almost unbelievable," said Cynthia Willis, a medical marijuana patient who originally sought a concealed handgun license from the sheriff. "It's so much money and such a waste."

The Mail Tribune filed a public records request on May 24 to discover how much time and money has been spent on the case involving Winters and Willis, a Gold Hill resident who has a clean criminal record but who uses cannabis for muscle spasms and arthritis pain.

Willis, who has spent $3,000 for her own attorney's fees, has prevailed at every court level against the sheriff, including the Oregon Supreme Court in May.

The sheriff declined to comment on the legal expenses. Andrea Carlson, spokeswoman for the sheriff, said, "The sheriff said the case is still in process, and he doesn't want to make any comments at this time."

Winters and Jackson County commissioners are considering appealing the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Calls to the three county commissioners for comment were not returned.

The sheriff initially denied Willis a concealed handgun license in 2008, citing the U.S. Gun Control Act of 1968, which prohibits anyone who uses or is addicted to a controlled substance from having a firearm.

The sheriff discovered that Willis is a medical marijuana patient when she filled out the application for a concealed handgun license. In addition to the permit questions required to satisfy Oregon law, Winters added his own questions, such as whether the applicant used medical marijuana.

Oregon Revised Statute 166.291 has a list of requirements for concealed weapons permit applicants, but doesn't specifically exclude someone who uses drugs.

When Winters lost in the Oregon Court of Appeals, he issued a concealed handgun license to Willis.

In its appeal to the Oregon Supreme Court, the county argued the state statute stands as an obstacle to enforcing federal law.

In 2008, the county hired the firm of Hornecker, Cowling, Hassen and Hesell L.L.P of Medford to manage the case. The firm's attorneys spent almost 80 hours on it and charged from $165 to $175 an hour.

Then in July 2010, the county switched to its own attorney, Ryan Kirchoff, who had spent 202 hours as of March 3. The county's 2011-12 budget indicates that the billing rates of the county counsel's office average about $100 an hour, which would amount to just over $20,250 for 202 hours.

The county counsel's $870,000 budget operates under a system of charge backs to other county departments based on the usage by each department.

The sheriff previously spent about $44,000 in legal costs in contesting a Mail Tribune request for access to concealed weapons permits, which the newspaper maintained are public records. Local courts and the state appeals court sided with the newspaper and the county agreed in 2010 to make the records available.

In the Mail Tribune case, the county paid more than $20,000 to cover the newspaper's legal expenses; it's possible it would have to pay Willis' legal costs if it ultimately loses the case.

Attorney Leland Berger, who represents Willis, said the amount of money Willis has sent to him doesn't reflect the time and energy he has put into the case. He said wouldn't disclose how many hours he has put into the case at this point.

If the county petitions the U.S. Supreme Court, Berger said, it would be a further waste of taxpayer money.

"It's really enough already," he said.

Berger said the sheriff should instead ask the Legislature to change the law, or bring an initiative before voters.

Lori Duckworth, executive director of the Southern Oregon chapter of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, or SONORML, based in Medford said the sheriff would focus his attentions on the many other issues law enforcement could be dealing with in Jackson County.

"I think the fact that the sheriff is blatantly thumbing his nose at three Oregon courts shows a complete and utter waste of time," said Duckworth, who also has a concealed handgun license, said. "It speaks very loudly for his opinion about medical marijuana and the patients who use it.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or e-mail

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