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Illegal pot fuels ‘narco-slavery’ in Rogue Valley

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Law enforcement agencies found workers living in deplorable conditions during a July raid in Jackson County. Photo courtesy of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office
Workers found living in squalid conditions

Local police are finding more than marijuana, guns and cash when they raid illegal pot grows across the Rogue Valley.

They’re discovering disturbing cases of workers living in squalid, dangerous conditions.

Workers are sleeping in tents or on shipping container floors, sometimes with nothing but pieces of cardboard for mattresses. They lack running water for drinking, showering, cleaning their clothes or using the toilet. They’re exposed to pesticides, store their personal belongings in trash bags and live near dozens of fire-prone outlets strung up on plywood, according to photos from drug busts in the Rogue Valley this summer.

Pot growers appear to be taking advantage of the workers ― and it’s not clear if the workers are at the sites of their own free will.

“They’re not paying them. They’re making them live in deplorable conditions. They’re not allowing them to leave,” Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler said of conditions at some of the grows.

The situation has been dubbed narco-slavery by some because of its ties to narcotics, or illegal drugs.

Many of the workers may have come from across the Mexican border. If they’re in America without permission, that makes them easy to exploit since they’re unlikely to complain to authorities, Sickler said.

Some may have crossed the border with the help of cartels and owe the powerful organizations money that they repay in the form of labor at cartel-run grow sites, he said.

A boom in unlicensed marijuana and hemp grows in the Rogue Valley has far outstripped the abilities of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office and Josephine County Sheriff’s Office to tackle the problem, Sickler said.

“We don’t have enough resources just to get to the illegal growing that is out there, let alone the complex investigations into evidence of human trafficking,” he said.

Because of their ideal growing conditions, Southern Oregon and Northern California are internationally known as prime areas to grow marijuana and hemp.

Local sheriffs, the Jackson County Board of Commissioners and members of the Oregon Legislature representing Southern Oregon are among the elected officials who have appealed to state and federal authorities for help.

"The damaging impacts, including human trafficking of a labor force in conditions approaching slavery, severe aggravation of the drought through massive and systematic water theft, long-term damage to agricultural lands from various polluting practices, and the financial ruin of licensed growers whose compliance obligations make competition impossible are hard to overstate. All this is taking place across the Rogue Valley with essential impunity,“ state Sen. Jeff Golden and state Rep. Pam Marsh of Jackson County and state Rep. Lily Morgan of Josephine County said in an August letter to Gov. Kate Brown.

They said it’s too late to eradicate all the illegal grows planted across the Rogue Valley this year.

“But it’s not too late, if prompt emergency steps are taken, to deprive some portion of the illegal growers of the massive profits that their crimes will generate, to relieve the suffering of many of their laborers, and to send an unmistakable message that Oregon is no longer open for their kind of business,” the legislators from the two counties said in the letter.

Workers were crammed together in hot spaces processing marijuana at an illegal Jackson County grow site. Photo courtesy of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office

Law enforcement agencies have teamed up over the summer to carry out large-scale raids. The operations are making a dent in the problem.

So far this year, the Illegal Marijuana Enforcement Team has served 41 search warrants and seized nearly 500,000 illegal marijuana plants, 30,000 pounds of processed marijuana, 121 weapons and $1.7 million, according to the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office.

Law enforcement agencies are finding high-capacity guns and other weapons at illegal grow sites in the Rogue Valley. Photo courtesy of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office

They’re also finding methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin.

The team served search warrants on two black-market marijuana sites this week, one near Gold Hill and another by Eagle Point.

Growers have brazenly put up illegal greenhouses across the Rogue Valley. Photo courtesy of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office

Together, the busts uncovered 15,000 pounds of processed illegal marijuana, more than 20,000 plants yet to be cultivated, five guns and nearly $650,000 cash. One suspect was arrested, and 111 workers were taken into custody, interviewed and released, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office said.

Many workers were living in shipping containers on cots lined up in rows, while others lived in tents, photos from the busts show.

Workers at illegal grows often live in shipping containers or tents. Photo courtesy of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office

In July, agencies raided a black-market grow near Central Point and found illegal marijuana, unsafe living conditions, 35 greenhouses put up without permits, more than $9,000 cash, ammunition and high-capacity guns, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office said.

“Living conditions for migrant workers at the grow site were uninhabitable,” the sheriff’s office reported. “Living and working areas were filthy, cramped and otherwise unsafe with many sleeping on cardboard inside shipping containers with little or no access to bathing and bathroom facilities.”

Illegal marijuana growers have put up greenhouses across the Rogue Valley. Photo courtesy of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office

In August in Josephine County, a team of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies took down a massive illegal grow near Kerby with 373 greenhouses, more than 72,000 marijuana plants, 6,000 pounds of processed marijuana, 10 guns and $140,000 cash.

Rogue Valley agencies got help from the FBI, U.S. Homeland Security Investigations and deputies and police from as far away as Eugene and Bend.

They found hundreds of workers at the site.

“What we’re seeing is disgusting ― people living in shanties with no running water,” Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel said on the day of the bust. “At this point, the workers are being treated as victims. We have information that there is some forced labor.”

Despite what police are seeing with their own eyes, getting workers to complain about grow operators is a tough sell.

Interviews were conducted with 200 of the workers from the Josephine County bust.

“As expected, the workers relayed no concerns of humanitarian violations,” the Josephine County Sheriff’s Office reported after the raid. “According to Homeland Security Investigations, this is a common occurrence. The workers may be in fear of retaliation to themselves or family members, not being paid and immigration status concerns among others.”

All the workers were allowed to leave the property or stay if they wanted, the Josephine County Sheriff’s Office said.

When busts happen, workers tend to flee in all directions, said Marsh, a representative in the Oregon Legislature whose district covers southern Jackson County.

Some of them have resurfaced in Rogue Valley towns, penniless on streets corners or living in cars.

Marsh has been working with local nonprofit organizations to try and get help for the workers.

“When operations are shut down, what happens to workers who often don’t speak any English and may not have a good idea of where they’ve landed and have been left without a nickel in their pockets? I think it’s fairly described as a humanitarian disaster,” Marsh said.

She said Rogue Valley nonprofit organizations that are working to help people through the pandemic and the aftermath of 2020’s destructive wildfires can’t be expected to shoulder the whole burden of helping exploited cannabis workers.

Marsh said providing help requires unprecedented multi-agency cooperation, including from state agencies.

She said the Oregon Attorney General is spearheading a study on human trafficking.

“Trying to get a handle on how people got here and what they need now has been very difficult. We’re still in that phase of trying to understand what’s even happening,” Marsh said.

She said terrible working and living conditions aren’t limited to illegal marijuana grows. Inspections of licensed hemp sites are also uncovering deplorable conditions, including children working in fields.

Marijuana, which contains ingredients to get users high, is legal in Oregon but still illegal at the federal level. Hemp is legal federally, and can be grown with far fewer regulations.

The plants look alike, although field tests can be used to detect the difference. Some growers claim they are raising hemp, but they either are growing all marijuana, or have marijuana plants hidden among the hemp.

“No one can tell the difference between a hemp plant and a marijuana plant,” Sickler said. “And yet hemp is regulated like peaches and marijuana is regulated like a drug.”

He said he would like to see more stringent federal regulations placed on hemp.

Property owners also need to be aware they can face hefty fines if they rent their land to illegal growers, Sickler said.

In Josephine County, the owner of the property raided near Kerby is facing civil forfeiture of the land for allowing a criminal operation there, the Josephine County Sheriff’s Office said.

An illegal grow site busted in August in Josephine County included hundreds of greenhouses. Photo courtesy of the Josephine County Sheriff’s Office

Although the Oregon Legislature passed some reforms this past spring to help regulate marijuana and hemp grows and put more money into enforcement, Sickler and Marsh said more needs to be done to help Southern Oregon, which is bearing the brunt of marijuana and hemp legalization.

While the bulk of sales occur in more heavily populated Northern Oregon, the impacts from growing fall disproportionately on Jackson and Josephine counties, the two top counties for grows.

Sickler said local law enforcement agencies can’t handle the illegal grows on their own.

“These sites are big. They’re potentially dangerous for law enforcement. They’re dangerous for the people working on them. They take a lot of effort to eradicate and investigate. So resources are our biggest need to be able to deal with these effectively,” he said.

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