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Cannabis enforcement efforts need state support

Jackson County commissioners have done what they can do to step up investigations into illegal marijuana and hemp growing operations. The Legislature should step up and help with funding for more enforcement.

Marijuana and hemp are both legal crops in Oregon, but under separate and somewhat confusing sets of rules.

Oregon voters legalized recreational marijuana — the kind that gets users high — in 2014. The federal government legalized hemp as an agricultural crop in 2018.

In Oregon, marijuana growers are licensed and regulated by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. Hemp growers fall under the state Department of Agriculture.

Hemp is grown for industrial and medicinal uses, and by law cannot contain more than 0.3% THC — the intoxicating component of marijuana — on a dry-weight basis. Both marijuana and hemp are in the cannabis family, and it’s difficult to tell the difference in the field without testing.

County code enforcers field complaints about both crops, and they are overwhelmed with the workload. Until very recently, inspectors responded only to complaints, passing by potential violations on their way to investigate a complaint but unable to act. County commissioners have changed that policy to allow code enforcers to initiate investigations on their own, and to issue citations without seeking voluntary compliance.

The county’s hands-off approach made sense when the two industries were just getting started and rules and regulations were being adjusted. It’s not new anymore. Growers should know the rules before they start, and if they violate them they should face consequences.

Southern Oregon is a magnet for cannabis growers because the climate is particularly suitable to growing outdoors. The number of acres planted in hemp exploded with federal legalization after 2018, but the market could not absorb the quantity being produced and prices crashed. Marijuana, on the other hand, is highly profitable if it is illegally smuggled out of state on the black market. So there is an incentive for unscrupulous growers to disguise marijuana plants among fields of hemp.

The Oregon Legislature is considering a bill to add inspectors to the Agriculture Department and give law enforcement maps showing licensed grows so they can find unlicensed ones. Those steps and more should be pursued. Jackson County commissioners have also asked for state funding to hire more code enforcement officers.

Legal, licensed and regulated crops are good for the local and the state economy and should be encouraged. But growers who won’t follow the rules should be held accountable.