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County to crack down on cannabis code violations

Jackson County code enforcement officers will issue tickets more quickly for cannabis operations that violate codes, rather than focusing on voluntary compliance first. File photo
Efforts to gain voluntary compliance ineffective

Jackson County code enforcement officers will start issuing citations more quickly against marijuana and hemp operations that violate codes, rather than continuing with a drawn-out voluntary compliance approach that has proven ineffective against the seasonal crops.

By the time code enforcement officers get through the monthslong process of trying to help people get in compliance, growers have often harvested their crops, pocketed the cash and moved on without facing consequences, county officials said.

The cycle repeats itself the next year as neighbors watch in frustration.

Complaints about marijuana and hemp operations have skyrocketed along with the proliferation of the crops in Jackson County. With its ideal growing environment, the county has the most marijuana and hemp grows in the state.

Since January, 61% of complaints to county code enforcement officers have been cannabis-related, said Jackson County Development Services Director Ted Zuk.

Cannabis is an umbrella term that includes marijuana and hemp.

Zuk said in the first five months of this year, code enforcement officers have investigated more cannabis cases than in all of 2020.

Last year, the county’s three code enforcement officers averaged 162 active cases each.

“Right now, they’re at 320, and it’s only May,” Zuk said. “So that’s the extent of the problem. Everybody is getting more phone calls about how ineffective code enforcement is. There’s a reason for that ― because the workload is just daunting.”

Jackson County has asked the Oregon Legislature to allocate money so the county can hire three more code enforcement officers and an office assistant to handle the workload.

Oregon voters legalized recreational marijuana in 2014, and the federal government legalized hemp as an agricultural crop in 2018. Marijuana contains compounds that get users high and it’s more closely regulated, while hemp is grown for medicinal or industrial use. It’s difficult to tell the difference between the two crops in the field without testing.

Jackson County has long had a soft-touch policy when it comes to code enforcement. But that approach was adopted before the legalization of recreational marijuana and hemp, said County Administrator Danny Jordan.

“People wait us out until they can harvest their product,” he said.

Code enforcement issues cover a range of problems such as garbage and broken down vehicles accumulating on a property, people building greenhouses for cannabis without permits, or workers living alongside cannabis grows in recreational vehicles. The issues are less severe than criminal activity handled by law enforcement, but they can harm the environment and hurt the quality of life for neighbors.

Jackson County’s policy has been for code enforcement officers to inform people about the rules and help them get into compliance.

Code enforcement has also been complaint-driven, meaning the county had to first receive a complaint before a code enforcement officer could take action.

For example, a code enforcement officer could be driving out to investigate a cannabis case after receiving a complaint about a property and see a half-dozen properties violating codes along the way. But the officer couldn’t take any action against those other properties without first receiving a complaint, said Jackson County Counsel Joel Benton.

Jackson County commissioners agreed this week to change the policy so code enforcement officers can initiate an investigation into a cannabis operation without first receiving a complaint. Officers can also issue citations in cannabis cases without first going through the long process of seeking voluntary compliance.

Commissioner Rick Dyer said cannabis legalization has created new realities and new impacts that require a more proactive code enforcement approach.

The faster and more proactive approach won’t solve all of neighbors’ frustrations with marijuana and hemp operations. Much of the activity is legal, Benton noted.

Some agricultural operations such as legal slaughterhouses generate complaints, but they are permitted agricultural uses. The same is true for many cannabis operations, he said.

Jordan said property owners who lease their land for cannabis grows and processing facilities should make sure those operations are legal.

Unscrupulous growers could abandon property owners to face the consequences of citations alone, which include fines and potential liens and foreclosures.

In 2018, Jackson County raised the maximum fine for code violations from $10,000 to $20,000 in an effort to get better compliance from marijuana operations. County officials said at the time many growers were undeterred by $10,000 fines because their operations were so profitable.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.