Landowners face fines, trash from illegal pot grows
Landowners who rent their property to illegal marijuana growers could face massive fines, mountains of leftover garbage and even criminal charges.
The number of illegal marijuana grows exploded in Jackson and Josephine counties in 2021. Illegal growers could be approaching local landowners again this year, offering wads of cash for use of their property.
Many pretend to be growers of legal marijuana or hemp, but lack the necessary state and local permits. Their goal is to grow marijuana and sell it for higher profits on the black market in states where pot remains illegal.
Jackson County Hearings Officer Roger Pearce said illegal marijuana growers offer thousands of dollars in cash to use land that wouldn’t yield big profits for other crops, such as hay.
“If it’s too good to be true, it probably is,” said Pearce, who handles code violation cases as a hearings officer. He’s also a lawyer specializing in land use and real estate law.
Landowners can face a $1,000 fine for every illegal structure on their property. With growers putting up dozens to hundreds of illegal greenhouses, the fines mount quickly, Pearce said.
The largest Jackson County fine he’s seen so far has been $200,000.
“I’ve seen up to 200 structures. That’s about 200 grand,” he said.
Penalties can go even higher for repeat violations, Pearce said.
Landowners can face other code violation fines from the county. They could be fined by the state for labor violations, failing to register as a farm labor camp, stealing water or polluting water.
Ignorance is not an excuse when it comes to code violations, Pearce said.
“Sometimes people lease their property and don’t have a clue what the leasee is doing. Others see it and know, but don’t do anything,” Pearce said.
Some landowners are intensely involved in illegal grows, he said.
Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert said most cases involve code enforcement issues, but some property owners could face criminal charges for allowing illegal operators to use their land or buildings such as warehouses. Illegal use of water and water pollution can sometimes result in criminal charges as well.
“If you know they’re doing something illegal, you can be aiding and abetting a criminal operation,” she said.
Legal issues aside, Heckert said property owners risk getting involved with potentially dangerous people.
“The product they’re producing is valuable. We see when we do raid operations that a lot of people are armed. You could be encountering dangerous individuals who come to work on your farm, or the people overseeing the workers could be dangerous,” she said.
Many big illegal grows are backed financially by foreign cartels or other drug trafficking organizations, said Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler.
He said some landowners are approached by strangers offering large sums of money. They don’t do enough checking to see whether the operation is legitimate.
“Some people would put more effort into deciding what color to paint their house than into checking who is growing hemp or marijuana on their land,” Sickler said.
Like Pearce, the Jackson County hearings officer, Sickler said some landowners are in the dark, while others know what is going on.
“Some people had no idea. Some people had an indication that it was too good to be true, but they turned a blind eye and thought, ‘Ignorance is bliss.’ Some people have caught on and called us and said, ‘Can you help me get rid of these people? It’s not turning out as described.’ There’s a large range of knowledge and culpability,” Sickler said.
Last year, for example, a woman called the sheriff’s office to turn over the money she received and ask for help, he said.
“She was seeing things on her land that were not what she expected. She put two and two together and didn’t want any part of it,” Sickler said.
Once illegal growers harvest their crop, or if they get busted by law enforcement, landowners are left with a major cleanup job.
Most of the workers at illegal grows are low-level laborers who get released by law enforcement after a bust. Organizers tend to be hidden away in other states or countries, making them hard to trace.
Growers erect temporary plastic greenhouses, apply chemicals to their crops, leave behind human waste and garbage, set up hazardous outlets and electrical lines, create squalid living areas for workers, bulldoze the land and dig dirt or plastic-lined ponds to illegally store water, according to photos of busts provided by the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office.
“Property owners need to be aware these grows leave a big mess,” Pearce said. “It’s like if a leasee rents your house and trashes it. The trash that’s left over has to be cleaned up. Sometimes there are toxins that have to go to a special landfill, plus there’s general debris and garbage. You could be left with a half-ton of plastic piping and sheeting.”
Plastic piping and sheeting can be dumped at the local Dry Creek Landfill, but chemicals such as fertilizers and herbicides have to be shipped to special facilities that take hazardous waste, said Garry Penning, director of government affairs for Rogue Disposal & Recycling.
“If chemicals are not in their original containers, like if they have no labels, you have to have all that material tested. You have to find a firm that would come and pick it up and dispose of it in a hazardous waste facility,” Penning said.
Those facilities are located in places such as northern Oregon and Texas, he said.
Abandoned vehicles, including RVs, pose a special challenge.
“You have to have a title to show it’s abandoned,” Penning said. “You need to have the title to recycle it at metal recycling. You can’t just take a car to the junkyard and say, ‘I want to get rid of this.’”
To avoid problems, Pearce recommends landowners contact the Jackson County Development Services Department to find out what types of permits are needed for a proposed grow.
Growers need county permits for structures, electrical wiring and other work. Call the Jackson County Development Services Department at 541-774-6927.
To report code enforcement problems on a property, call the Code Enforcement Division at 541-774-6906.
The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office has posted answers to frequently asked questions about hemp, medical marijuana and recreational marijuana operations, including how to check that growers have necessary state permits and licenses. Visit jacksoncountyor.org/sheriff/Outreach/Property-Liabilities.
Starting this year, a moratorium on new hemp licenses is in place in Jackson County. People who previously grew hemp may be able to renew their licenses.
In 2021, many growers were pretending to grow hemp, which doesn’t get people high, but were actually growing marijuana illegally. The Oregon Legislature passed a law allowing counties to ask for a moratorium on new hemp licenses issued by the state.
In addition to contacting Jackson County Development Services and state agencies, landowners are welcome to consult with the sheriff’s office, Sickler said.
“If somebody feels like someone has approached them and they’re concerned about the legitimacy of who they say they are, they can contact us,” he said. “Call us before you agree to anything. We can give you advice.
Sickler said law enforcement agencies may be familiar with a particular group engaged in illegal activity.
“I would rather take a phone call or an email than see someone get in trouble. We want to prevent illegal grows. We want people to work with us. We look forward to a good partnership with the community to curtail the illegal marijuana industry,” he said.
Reach the sheriff’s administration office at 541-774-6818.
Compared to the explosion of grows in 2021, Sickler said this year seems to be off to a slower start. People have more awareness about the problem of illegal grows in Jackson County.
However, drug cartels are known to operate in a cyclical fashion, sometimes shifting to different counties to keep law enforcement off guard. They might be building up their operations elsewhere, Sickler said.
“We think there’s a good chance we’ll see less grows this year,” he said. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed. We’re continuing to watch.”
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.