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Thinking of leasing your land for big bucks? Don’t

If rural landowners didn’t get the message last year that illegal cannabis growers were leasing farmland to raise marijuana for the black market, they are on notice now. Not only do clandestine growers trash properties and leave toxic chemicals and waste in their wake, but property owners who allow them to do it can face staggering fines and even criminal prosecution if they knowingly assist in illegal activities.

Southern Oregon’s long, hot growing season is ideal for cultivating cannabis, and the presence of legal, licensed growing operations for marijuana and hemp provide cover for criminal cartels who once concealed their plantations on forest land. Now the illegal operations look just like permitted ones.

Some landowners were caught by surprise last year and came to regret agreeing to rent out their property. Some came to the county and asked for help in removing the unwanted tenants.

Illegal growers may offer large sums of cash — more than an owner would get for conventional crops.

The bad news is, ignorance is not a defense against fines for unauthorized structures, dumped chemicals or polluted water. County code enforcement fines for greenhouses erected without permits can run $1,000 per structure. Growing operations sometimes put up as many as 200 of these, so the fines can get exorbitant in a hurry.

The good news: The Jackson County Development Services Department and Jackson County Sheriff’s Office are ready and willing to help and encourage landowners to call them before agreeing to rent out their property. Development Services will explain what permits are required for structures, electrical wiring and other work. The Sheriff’s Department maintains a list of frequently asked questions on its website that explains how to check whether a grower has the required state licenses and permits for medical marijuana, recreational marijuana or hemp.

Hemp, which does not get people high, is regulated by the state Agriculture Department, while recreational marijuana is under the jurisdiction of the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission.

Last year, some growers were pretending to raise hemp but cultivating marijuana illegally instead. The plants are indistinguishable without testing.

As a result, there is a state-imposed moratorium on new hemp licenses in Jackson County for this year, at the county’s request. Hemp growers who were licensed last year may be able to renew their licenses.

Sheriff Nathan Sickler says his department would rather work with people to prevent illegal grows than to see landowners get into trouble. He urges anyone with concerns to call the department’s administrative line, 541-774-6818.

With any luck, growing awareness of the risks and the potential costs will keep the number of illegal operations down this year.