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Jackson County seeking $7 million to tackle illegal pot

Photo courtesy of Jackson County Sheriff’s Office Marijuana busts in Jackson County are revealing illegal grows worth millions of dollars each.
County will put in request to state government

Jackson County plans to ask the state for $7,268,718 to tackle the billions of dollars worth of illegal pot grows proliferating across the Rogue Valley.

The money would fund 37 new employees, ranging from new Jackson County Sheriff’s Office detectives to code enforcement officers to more staff for the Jackson County District Attorney’s Office.

Jackson County Commissioner Rick Dyer said the nearly $7.3 million request is what the county needs over a year to make growing illegal marijuana uncomfortable and risky for those breaking the law.

Without enough funding from the state and blocked from enacting their own local taxes on grows to fund marijuana enforcement, Southern Oregon counties have fallen far behind on busting illegal pot operations, Jackson County officials say.

State agencies charged with regulating the hemp and marijuana industries and agricultural water use also can’t keep up with the volume of illegal operators.

Southern Oregon is at the tip of the so-called Emerald Triangle, a famous marijuana growing region that includes Northern California.

Jackson, Josephine, Klamath and Douglas County sheriff’s offices regularly bust grows, processing and storage sites with tens of millions of dollars worth of illegal marijuana. The largest sites this year have surpassed the $100 million mark — including a potato shed found stuffed with marijuana worth more than $100 million in Klamath County and a massive grow with an estimated $200 million worth of marijuana plants in Josephine County.

Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan said the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office can currently bust about 40 illegal grows per year.

Jackson County officials estimate there are 2,000 legal and illegal hemp and marijuana sites locally.

Law enforcement agencies in Southern Oregon say foreign cartels are behind many of the illegal grows in the area. The cartels know some of the grows will get busted, but the rest will generate vast sums of money.

“There’s literally billions that this is worth to cartels,” Dyer said.

As a general rule of thumb, police estimate, a single marijuana plant can generate $1,000 if sold on the black market.

Growing marijuana is legal in Oregon and raising hemp is legal across America. Many growers ignore regulations that govern those crops and sell to states where marijuana is illegal — and fetches a much higher price.

Locally, more than half of licensed hemp grows are fronts for marijuana, according to state regulators who tested hemp grow sites this year.

Hemp doesn’t contain high levels of THC, which gets users high. But without testing, hemp plants are indistinguishable from marijuana plants.

Jackson County officials believe they can get state regulatory agencies to voice support for the county’s nearly $7.3 million funding request. The request will go to the Oregon Legislative Fiscal Office Emergency Board. Often called the e-board, the board allocates emergency funds when the Oregon Legislature isn’t in session.

State regulatory agencies such as the Oregon Department of Agriculture, the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission and the Oregon Water Resources Department are themselves overwhelmed by the flood of illegal hemp and marijuana grows and water theft.

Jordan said Jackson County and other Southern Oregon counties needs millions of dollars every year to tackle illlegal operations. They need stable, predictable funding so they can hire, train and keep additional workers such as detectives.

Jordan noted the nearly $7.3 million request doesn’t include money to address environmental damage from plastic, dismantled greenhouses, human feces, pesticides and dangerous electrical wiring left behind by illegal growers.

The state Emergency Board is sitting on a larger pile of money than usual this year, in part because Oregon’s budget was buttressed by federal pandemic aid.

“From a budget standpoint, this should be a no-brainer,” Jackson County Commissioner Dave Dotterrer said about the county’s funding request.

Dotterrer said illegal operations are undercutting hemp and marijuana businesses that follow laws.

Jackson County may also seek tighter regulations on hemp and marijuana, taxes on grows, bigger fines, restrictions on water hauling and other changes to laws governing the industries.

Jordan said state regulators and Oregon legislators from Northern Oregon counties don’t always understand the full impact of illegal grows in Southern Oregon.

Although some illegal grows are popping up in Northern Oregon, the damp weather there is less conducive to growing the crop.

Jordan said the outdoor growing season in Southern Oregon is winding down, but people can still grow inside greenhouses. Criminal activity related to processing, packaging and shipping illegal marijuana out-of-state is in full swing, he said.

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