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Jackson County declares marijuana emergency

A police raid in July in Jackson County revealed illegal marijuana plants and dozens of greenhouses. Photo courtesy of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office
Illegal grows overwhelm enforcement capabilities

Jackson County commissioners declared a local state of emergency Wednesday due to threats to public health and safety from illegal marijuana production.

Commissioners said a boom in illegal marijuana has overwhelmed the ability of law enforcement, code enforcement and irrigation water regulators to enforce local and state laws.

Commissioners are asking Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Legislature to provide manpower, funding and National Guard troops to tackle the problem. They also want the repeal of state restrictions that stop Jackson County from taxing marijuana production to raise money to deal with the myriad of local problems.

“Since recreational marijuana was legalized by the voters of Oregon in the November 2014 general election, the illegal and unlawful production of marijuana in our county has overwhelmed the ability of our county and state regulators to enforce relevant laws in our community,” Jackson County Commissioner Rick Dyer said in a video press conference Wednesday.

Oregon voters were told by marijuana proponents that legalization would reduce the burden on law enforcement and spare people from prosecution. Instead, the burden on law enforcement has grown.

“Law enforcement in Jackson County reports a 59% increase in calls for service associated with the marijuana industry, including burglary, theft, assault, robbery and nuisance crimes,” Dyer said. “And there’s also significant evidence of narco-slavery, forced labor, human trafficking, immigration issues, squalid and unsafe living conditions and exploitation and abuse of workers, child welfare issues and animal abuse.”

To handle the criminal issues and bust illegal grows, Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler said he needs an additional 18 detectives, four patrol deputies, three supervisors, nine support staff and about $750,000 per year in materials and services.

This year, the sheriff’s office received a state grant to add two detectives and one property and evidence clerk.

County officials said busting an illegal grow is a major undertaking that involves the dismantling of greenhouses, pulling out hundreds or thousands of plants, confiscating guns and other evidence and dealing with workers living in squalid conditions approaching slavery.

“They’re pretty complex investigations,” Sickler said.

He said foreign drug cartels are gaining ground in Jackson and Josephine counties.

Before legalization, Sickler said, law enforcement agencies would generally bust illegal grows hidden away in the forested hills. Now, illegal marijuana grows are hiding in plain sight, often masquerading as legal marijuana or hemp grows.

Hemp doesn’t have high levels of THC, which gets users high. The federal government legalized the growing of hemp in 2018, although marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

Sickler said law enforcement personnel can’t tell the difference visually between hemp and marijuana. The plants have to be tested.

Even if growers bother to apply for a state license to grow hemp, the plants they are growing are often marijuana. Growing hemp comes with far fewer restrictions, creating an incentive to grow marijuana and sell it on the black market.

State regulators tested 212 of 335 registered hemp grows in Jackson and Josephine counties and found 54% allegedly contained illegal marijuana, they said. At 76 sites, growers refused to allow inspectors onto the land, Dyer said.

Jackson County’s code enforcement officers have been flooded with complaints about suspected illegal operations. Problems include the construction of illegal greenhouses, illegal electrical wiring that poses a fire hazard in rural areas, environmental damage and other issues that put neighbors at risk and harm their quality of life, Dyer said.

In 2015, Jackson County code enforcement dealt with 604 cases and none were related to marijuana, Dyer said.

Through September of this year, they’ve had 1,006 cases, and 663 of those were marijuana-related. They predict they’ll face 1,509 cases by the end of the year, including 980 that are marijuana-related, Dyer said.

To handle the volume of complaints, Jackson County needs to triple its code enforcement staff from three people to nine, plus add two hearings officers to adjudicate citations, Dyer said.

Cases that used to take three weeks to resolve now stretch to four months or longer, he said.

The four local employees with the Oregon Water Resources Department have also been flooded with complaints from residents about illegal use of water by growers. Water theft worsens Jackson County’s drought situation and jeopardizes the ability of legal water users to have the water they need, county officials said.

Water complaints skyrocketed from 39 in 2015 to 195 so far this year. Employees expect they’ll get 275 complaints by the end of 2021, Dyer said.

Despite the rising complaints, the state has only increased the number of local staff from the equivalent of 3.5 workers to four workers, he said.

County commissioners said the Oregon Water Resources Department needs to add at least three more workers to handle the caseload here.

Local watermaster Shavon Haynes, a state employee who works in Jackson County, said it’s often not safe for Oregon Water Resources Department employees to go alone to marijuana grows. They have to get backup from other agencies.

Jackson County commissioners said the state needs to significantly boost staffing and resources for the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Control Commission, which oversee many state regulations over the industry.

Sickler said legal marijuana and hemp growers who follow the law are being pushed aside and swallowed up by illegal growers. Neighbors are frustrated when he tells them the sheriff’s office is aware of potentially illegal grows, but has a long waiting list of sites to investigate and bust.

Dyer said government agencies will never be able to eradicate all the illegal grows, which likely outnumber legal grows.

But they need to disrupt enough to make it uncomfortable to operate in Jackson County, he said.

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