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Illegal marijuana overwhelms enforcement efforts

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Law enforcement can’t keep up with the explosion of illegal marijuana operations in Southern Oregon. Jackson County Sheriff’s Office photo
Landowners left facing fines after growers flee

A boom in illegal marijuana and hemp grows in Southern Oregon this year has overwhelmed the ability of law enforcement agencies and regulators to keep up.

Foreign cartels are behind many of the grows, and criminals from at least eight states have descended on Southern Oregon to rob and assault both legal and illegal pot operators, according to experts who spoke this week during an online forum hosted by State Rep. Pam Marsh.

The business-savvy cartels factor in a margin of loss, knowing law enforcement can’t bust all the illegal grows, said Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler.

“They plant more than they think we can get to and hope they still make a profit at the end of the season,” he said.

Sickler said cartels have long grown marijuana in Southern Oregon, but the grows were often hidden in the forested hills. Now they’re operating in the open, with large-scale greenhouse operations scattered throughout Southern Oregon.

Criminals from at least eight states have traveled to Southern Oregon and attacked marijuana operators, he said.

Most recently, three men from California were arrested this month after allegedly attacking people with a hammer at an illegal marijuana operation outside Eagle Point. Police and deputies interrupted the crime and arrested two of the men. A third suspect was caught after he tried to board a school bus, according to the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office.

Growing marijuana has been legal in Oregon for years, although it remains illegal at the federal level.

In 2018, Congress passed a farm bill that legalized hemp, a cousin to marijuana that doesn’t contain high levels of THC that gets users high.

Sickler said law enforcement can’t tell the difference between marijuana and hemp without testing the plants.

The hemp program rolled out in Oregon without enough regulations or enforcement to control the new industry, experts said.

Many people are growing marijuana illegally under the guise of growing hemp. Growing marijuana comes with far more regulations.

At hemp grow sites tested by the Oregon Department of Agriculture in Southern Oregon, 53% were growing plants with high levels of THC, indicating they were fronts for marijuana.

That testing only occurred at licensed hemp grows — not at the hundreds of local sites growing hemp without permission.

It wasn’t until this year that the Oregon Legislature passed a law making growing hemp without a license a crime. Before then, law enforcement’s hands were largely tied, Sickler said.

Many laborers are being forced to work and live in dangerous, deplorable conditions, often without pay, in a situation some are calling narco-slavery, according to law enforcement, code enforcement and farmworker advocacy experts who spoke during the online forum.

In 2020, COVID-19 swept through the ranks of marijuana and hemp workers who didn’t have masks, hand sanitizer or space to social distance. Many were crammed indoors trimming marijuana. If they complained about feeling sick, they were sometimes told they would be fired if they didn’t work, said Kathy Keesee, executive director of the Unete Center for Farm Worker and Immigrant Advocacy in Medford.

Law enforcement can’t keep up with the explosion of illegal marijuana operations in Southern Oregon. Courtesy photo

With drought in the Rogue Valley this year and some traditional farms not growing crops, some desperate farm workers took jobs in the marijuana and hemp industry, she said.

“This year we’ve received well over 200 complaints of unpaid wages — and we’re not talking small amounts. They’re owed thousands and thousands of dollars that they haven’t been paid,” Keesee said.

She said the cartels have threatened to harm the families of farm workers who ask for their unpaid wages.

Some women are experiencing sexual harassment and threats of rape, Keesee said.

She said many workers are beginning to develop respiratory problems, burning eyes, sore throats and severe headaches due to strong marijuana odors. They also work around toxic chemicals.

Law enforcement can’t keep up with the explosion of illegal marijuana operations in Southern Oregon. Jackson County Sheriff’s Office photo

When law enforcement busts an illegal grow, dozens or even hundreds of workers are displaced. Law enforcement and other organizations teamed up to create a wallet-sized card listing aid services and phone numbers to help displaced workers, Keesee said.

She said the Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industries needs to do more to investigate wage complaints, and Oregon Occupational Safety and Health needs to make more unannounced visits to check for hazardous conditions.

Jackson County’s overwhelmed code enforcement team is only able to handle the most egregious, dangerous cases due to an explosion of complaints about marijuana and hemp operations, said Alicia Brown, county code enforcement supervisor.

Each person is saddled with more than 300 cases, an insurmountable figure, she said.

Many marijuana and hemp workers are living and working in deplorable conditions, with some held against their will. The code enforcement team is finding garbage, human waste and dangerous and illegal electrical wiring that could cause fires where people work and live, Brown said.

Law enforcement can’t keep up with the explosion of illegal marijuana operations in Southern Oregon. Courtesy photo

“Unfortunately, we’ve seen children at these sites before. It’s really a terrible humanitarian situation,” she said.

Worker rights violations are rampant, she said.

The greenhouses get so hot in the summer that Brown sometimes doesn’t let code enforcement staff go in — yet workers are working and even living inside.

“Oftentimes we see workers sleeping inside greenhouses. You can imagine in the middle of the summer when it’s 98-99 degrees outside, the inside of a greenhouse is smokin’ hot and downright dangerous to be inside,” Brown said.

Many landowners have rented or leased their land to people who are running illegal operations. Landowners are often left facing massive fines and a huge mess on their property.

Law enforcement can’t keep up with the explosion of illegal marijuana operations in Southern Oregon. Courtesy photo

“Unfortunately, it’s the property owner that’s getting left holding the bag in these scenarios,” Brown said.

A single illegal greenhouse can generate a $3,000 fine. The code enforcement division is regularly issuing citations that are between $50,000 and $150,000, Brown said.

“We swing heavy fines. We’re serious about what we’re doing. We’re trying to send a message that this is not appropriate in our community and that this is not a lucrative thing for landowners or for anyone who’s operating illegally in this community,” Brown said.

The local watermaster’s office is understaffed and facing a landslide of complaints about the illegal use of water. The situation was especially dire this year after drought forced the early shutdown of irrigation water.

Workers from the watermaster’s office often encounter locked gates and “no trespassing” signs as they try to investigate complaints about marijuana grows, said Shavon Haynes, Oregon Water Resources Department District 13 Watermaster.

Haynes said he’s used to dealing with traditional farmers who understand water rights, water use and the importance of conservation during a drought. Illegal marijuana and hemp growers are straining the system and often stealing water.

Many who lack water rights for the property they’re using get water delivered by truck, which damages roads not built to handle the heavy traffic, Haynes said.

Legal operators who follow the rules are under pressure from those who flout regulations and sell marijuana for high prices on the black market, said Obie Strickler, chief executive officer of the Grown Rogue marijuana company and chairman of the Jackson County Marijuana Advisory Committee.

Strickler said he and his wife grew up in the Rogue Valley, attended Southern Oregon University and are raising their family here.

“We’ve spent a lot of time trying to establish a business that does it the right way,” he said.

Hundreds if not thousands of illegal grows have sprouted up in the past 18 months in the Rogue Valley following passage of the federal 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized hemp, he said.

While marijuana is highly regulated in Oregon, the hemp industry launched without adequate regulations and oversight. That created the perfect opportunity for illegal activity, including by cartels and organized crime, Strickler said.

Illegal grows are harming the environment, hurting the quality of life for neighbors, reducing tax revenue, contributing to crime, undercutting legal operators and leading to oversupply issues, he said.

Law enforcement can’t keep up with the explosion of illegal marijuana operations in Southern Oregon. Courtesy photo

If action isn’t taken, the problem will get worse, Strickler said.

Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission Executive Director Steve Marks said the legal marijuana and hemp industries can’t flourish without enforcement against illegal operators.

The OLCC regulates marijuana, while the Oregon Department of Agriculture regulates hemp.

The OLCC plans to continue its moratorium on the granting of new marijuana grow licenses. A moratorium should also be considered for hemp, Marks said.

He said agencies, including in law enforcement, need more resources to catch up with the problem.

“We’re going to need a three- to five-year effort of law enforcement continuous funding and activity to make sure we’ve driven cartels out of Southern Oregon,” Marks said.

He said the federal government, which partially created the problem by legalizing hemp, should support enforcement efforts and adopt policies to gain control over hemp.

The state of Oregon had $6 million in illegal marijuana enforcement grants available to help counties attack the illegal marijuana problem. More than 80% of that money went to Jackson and Josephine counties, said Oregon Criminal Justice Commission Executive Director Ken Sanchagrin.

However, he said Jackson and Josephine counties alone asked for more than the $6 million the commission had for the whole state.

Jackson County requested more than $4 million and received $2.57 million, Sanchagrin said.

He said law enforcement agencies need more funding and assurances that money will continue to be available long-term.

This month, the Jackson County Board of Commissioners declared an emergency due to threats to public health and safety from illegal marijuana production.

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.

The Douglas County Board of Commissioners also declared a state of emergency over marijuana this month.

The Josephine County Board of Commissioners is asking the federal government for help against illegal marijuana grows.

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