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Illegal cannabis grows a humanitarian nightmare

The conflict between state laws legalizing marijuana and federal prohibition has led not just to clandestine cannabis farms posing as licensed growers but to human trafficking of workers held against their will and lodged in squalid conditions while they tend the crops destined for the black market across state lines.

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County law enforcement authorities conducting raids on illicit grow sites are reporting huge operations with hundreds of greenhouses, tens of thousands of plants and hundreds of workers, many apparently in the country illegally.

Oregon’s legal marijuana industry has presented a problem for state regulators from the beginning, with oversight given to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. This part of the state has seen the bulk of the growing operations because of its climate, which is ideal for raising marijuana outdoors.

Although more and more states have moved to make recreational marijuana legal for adult use, the states that continue to prohibit even medical use or possession means there is a lucrative black market available for growers and traffickers willing to take the risk of interstate transport of the drug, which remains illegal under federal law.

Ender the Mexican cartels, which had long been in the business of meeting the demand with marijuana plantations tucked away on federal forest land in Oregon and California. The advent of legal, licensed growing on farmland gave them the perfect cover to move their operations out of the woods and pretend to join the legal industry.

Adding an additional layer of complexity for law enforcement was the federal legalization of hemp, a member of the same family of plants but lacking the psychoactive components of marijuana. Hemp farms are regulated by the state Agriculture Department. But Hemp and marijuana are indistinguishable from each other without chemical testing, so unscrupulous growers can surround illegal marijuana plants with hemp crops.

Jackson County Sheriff Nate Sickler says his department has its hands full even investigating illegal grows, let alone the complex investigation necessary to uncover trafficking of workers.

The scope of the problem is enormous. As Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous explains in today’s newspaper, local authorities have served 41 search warrants this summer, seizing half a million plants, 30,000 pounds of processed marijuana and hundreds of firearms, along with $1.7 million in cash and other drugs including methamphetamine and heroin.

Workers are being housed in tents or shipping containers with no running water or toilet facilities, sleeping on cardboard and exposed to pesticides and dangerous electrical lines that pose a fire hazard.

Local county officials and state lawmakers have asked Gov. Kate Brown for help. The state should provide as much assistance as possible. The situation is not just a threat to public safety but also to the environment, as illicit growers take water they are not legally entitled to. And the plight of the workers should prompt immediate action from state authorities.

None of this is an indictment of those licensed growers abiding by the rules and trying to make an honest living supplying the state’s legal marijuana industry. They are victims, too.