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Region’s illegal cannabis gets attention from afar

It’s no secret to rural Southern Oregon residents, but now it’s getting national and international attention. The region’s out-of-control illegal cannabis industry is the subject of new stories in the national news outlet Politico and the British newspaper The Guardian.

Both stories focus on the Cave Junction area, in Josephine County’s Illinois Valley, where the combination of sparse population and limited law enforcement has lured the kind of investors no one wants as neighbors. Unlicensed cannabis growing operations abound, along with guns, guard dogs and threats to residents who question their presence.

Foreign-based cartels buy up or lease land, steal water, clearcut trees and erect rows of hoop houses to protect their crops. While Mexican cartels have been a problem for years, the legalization of recreational marijuana has lured Bulgarians, Serbs, Ukrainians and Chinese operators, Josephine County authorities say.

The illicit plantations once hidden away on forest land are now right out in the open, and law enforcement agencies cannot keep up. The problem is not confined to Josephine County. In one bust alone in November, Oregon State Police and other agencies seized 500,000 pounds of processed marijuana from a site in White City that consisted of five warehouse-sized buildings.

These massive operations require considerable labor, which often is provided by undocumented workers held in virtual slavery by their employers, housed in squalid, unsanitary conditions and prevented from leaving. One worker was found shot to death, buried in a shallow grave in the O’Brien area south of Cave Junction.

The Oregon Legislature responded during its special session last month with $25 million in funding to help local law enforcement with expenses incurred from investigating illegal pot farms. The money will be distributed in the form of grants, some of which is earmarked for enforcing water rights. Sheriff’s offices and other law enforcement applying for grants will have to work with community-based organizations to address human trafficking of workers.

That will help, but local agencies say it is not nearly enough.

Oregon is not alone in this. Oklahoma, which has extremely lax rules for licenses to grow medical marijuana, is also seeing an increase in illicit growing.

It might be tempting to blame this problem on Oregon’s legalization of recreational marijuana, but that makes little sense. There are not enough marijuana customers in a state this small to consume the thousands of pounds being grown here. It’s the black market in states where marijuana is still illegal that offers the profits driving the cartels. Oregon just happens to have lots of open land, and Southern Oregon has more of it and a climate well suited to growing.

It’s a simple matter of economics. As long as there is big money to be made on the black market, someone will find a way to meet the demand and cash in.

Until marijuana is legalized nationally, or separately in every state, illegal cultivation will continue on a large scale. Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies will scramble to keep up.

More help from the state should be forthcoming in the 2022 legislative session starting next month.