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Good news on cannabis, wildfire fronts

Two developments in the past few days are good news for Southern Oregon, which is wrestling with out-of-control illegal cannabis cultivation and facing the prospect of another hot, dry summer and the wildfires likely to come with it. More needs to be done on both fronts, but we’ll take the positive news in the meantime.

The first is the Oregon Senate’s passage on Thursday of a bill to allow a temporary moratorium on new hemp-growing licenses while law enforcement continues to sniff out unlicensed marijuana being grown under the cover of hemp operations. Hemp is the non-intoxicating cousin of marijuana, and is regulated by the state Agriculture Department. In 2021, state regulators found more than half of hemp growing sites in Jackson and Josephine counties were growing marijuana with THC levels above the limit for hemp crops.

Senate Bill 1564 allows counties that have declared a state of emergency because of cannabis to ask the state to halt new hemp licenses for two years. The measure passed nearly unanimously and moved to the House.

That’s an important step toward getting a handle on the illegal activity plaguing this part of the state. But it’s only a step, and only part of the solution.

In addition to marijuana growing masquerading as hemp farms, full-blown illegal marijuana plantations operated by criminal cartels are stealing water, abusing workers in conditions that amount to human trafficking and endangering their rural neighbors with caches of firearms and environmentally destructive farming practices. The Mail Tribune documented law enforcement raids that seized marijuana with a black market value of $2.78 billion in four Southern Oregon counties — more than twice the total legal sales statewide in 2021.

Two bills are working their way through the lawmaking process that would help address this situation. Senate Bill 1587 would increase the amount of marijuana tax revenue going to law enforcement from $6 million in the current biennium to $32 million. This would reduce the amount of money going to substance abuse recovery services under the voter-passed Measure 110.

That won’t sit well with backers of Measure 110, which aims to get users of hard drugs into treatment instead of incarcerating them. But there is a strong case to be made that the illegal marijuana trade is an immediate crisis that demands a quick response.

Ideally, lawmakers should find a way to fund both efforts. That shouldn’t be impossible, given the recent revenue forecast that projects $800 million in extra income for the state.

Another bill in the works is House Bill 4074, which provides additional funding to community-based organizations working to address the humanitarian costs of the illegal marijuana trade.

The second dose of good news last week was the announcement of $20 million in grants to nine major projects to reduce wildfire risk on forest lands, including several here in Southern Oregon, where forest projects are already underway and crews are hard at work treating acreage near communities most at risk for catastrophic damage should wildfires break out.

The money comes from Senate Bill 762, passed during the 2021 legislative session. Grants were prioritized for projects and partnerships most likely to produce rapid results and put the money to use right away.

Again, this infusion of cash is welcome and badly needed, but it is only a step along the way. More investment will be required to address the long-term risk of fire to Southern Oregon communities.