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Cannabis emergency requires state response

Jackson County commissioners have declared a second state of emergency in as many weeks, this time to request state assistance in addressing a boom in illegal marijuana growing operations. We were critical of the earlier declaration, which took aim at Gov. Kate Brown’s COVID vaccine mandate for health care workers and school employees. This one makes more sense.

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State actions to address the surge in coronavirus cases that was straining hospitals’ capacity were prudent, and the commissioners’ declaration amounted to little more than a protest of the vaccine mandate and a prediction of staffing shortages that have not materialized.

The cannabis situation is different, and the commissioners are right to ask the state to devote more resources to the problem.

Jackson County is in a unique position because its climate makes it ideally suited to outdoor marijuana and hemp cultivation. While recreational use of marijuana is now legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia, it remains illegal elsewhere and under federal law. That makes it much more lucrative to ship across state lines on the black market.

The federal legalization of hemp — a non-psychoactive relative of marijuana — in 2018 compounded the problem because the plants are indistinguishable in the field and illicit growers can raise marijuana while pretending they are a hemp operation.

Cartels from south of the border that once conducted illicit grows hidden away on forest land are now operating out in the open. And workers brought in to provide labor are being mistreated, creating a humanitarian crisis on top of the illegal growing.

All of this creates a massive burden for county law enforcement, which has seen a 59% increase in calls for service related to the marijuana industry. Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler says he needs to add multiple deputies, supervisors and support staff to handle the workload of responding to crime reports and busting illegal growing operations.

This year, the department got a state grant to add two detectives and one evidence clerk. That is unacceptable.

The county also needs to triple its code enforcement staff, and state water resources staff based locally are overwhelmed with water use complaints, made worse by the drought.

Oregon’s legal marijuana system was set up to treat the entire state uniformly, collecting taxes statewide and distributing it to local governments. But this area needs far more support than other counties because growing operations are concentrated here.

The commissioners want the state to let the county collect taxes on legal marijuana production, which state law currently restricts. And they want help from the National Guard. Both are reasonable requests.

The governor commands the National Guard, which is authorized to perform law-enforcement functions within the state when needed. A federal law prohibiting the use of military for law enforcement does not apply to National Guard troops.

The Legislature doesn’t meet again until next year, but emergency funding can be allocated between now and then. Lawmakers should address this issue when they convene in 2022, and allocate more resources before next summer’s growing season.