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Legislature tackles illegal pot grows

The Oregon Legislature was on track Monday to provide $25 million to help Southern Oregon stamp out illegal cannabis operations.

Senate bills 893 and 4461 would provide law enforcement with $20 million and water rights enforcers with $5 million.

Late Monday, the bill headed to the House, which was expected to approve it.

The money, set aside in a special session, will help both Jackson and Josephine counties.

The Illegal Marijuana Market Enforcement Grant Program will also help local law enforcement thwart illegal cannabis distribution networks.

One of the chief backers of the bill, Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, said the money will help deal with an ongoing humanitarian crisis and with the drought.

“Illegal cannabis operations in Southern Oregon have been using our limited water supply, abusing local workers, threatening neighbors and negatively impacting businesses run by legal marijuana growers,” Golden said.

Some of the money will help local community organizations respond to the humanitarian crisis at the illegal operations.

Golden said six water masters will be hired and trained to deal with illegal use of water.

He said the money should allow the Jackson County sheriff to hire additional deputies to help with enforcement.

While most of the money will be targeted to Jackson and Josephine counties, some five or six other counties in Oregon will also receive dollars to help deal with illegal operations, Golden said.

The issue was brought up during the special session to ensure law enforcement resources were in place before next year’s hemp season begins in the spring, he said.

Photos of deplorable living conditions for some of the workers underscored the severity of the problem, Golden said.

“We had a lucrative hemp industry last year, but it’s become a cover for illegal cannabis operations,” he said.

In November, an extensive investigation by law enforcement led to the seizure of 500,000 pounds of processed marijuana at a site on Antelope Road in White City.

The Oregon State Police Drug Enforcement Section estimated the potential street value at around $500 million.

Local law enforcement, joined by legislators and local officials, have clamored for help dealing with the onslaught of illegal grows, often masquerading as legal hemp operations.

Jackson County Sheriff Nate Sickler testified before a legislative committee in November that criminal activity related to illegal marijuana operations has been on the rise.

“We’ve had stabbings, robberies, thefts, burglaries, homicides, sex crimes, motor vehicle accidents, DUIs, all related to the influx of the marijuana-cannabis industry in our valley,” Sickler said at the time.

Steven Marks, director of the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission, said his agency conducted tests at some 400 hemp sites over the summer. Most plants had higher amounts levels of THC than is legally allowed for hemp. THC produces the “high” in cannabis.

Golden expects the legislative session in 2022 will address other laws to deal with illegal grows, specifically laws surrounding water rights.

Reach freelance writer Damian Mann at dmannnews@gmail.com.