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Commissioners support warrantless searches of hemp grows

A bill in the Oregon Legislature that’s meant to crack down on illegal marijuana operations would allow law enforcement to investigate hemp grows without a search warrant.

Illegally grown marijuana can be hiding in plain sight amid rows of hemp that have proliferated throughout southwest Oregon. If they can get on the land, law enforcement personnel can test the plants in the field in about an hour to determine whether they are hemp or marijuana.

Along with hemp, recreational and medical marijuana are legal in Oregon if grown under the correct regulations, but the rules for marijuana are more stringent.

“There’s a very active black market for marijuana still in our county,” said Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler, who has testified in support of House Bill 2296.

The marijuana enforcement team for the sheriff’s office seized millions of dollars, thousands of plants, guns, drugs and other illegal material in 2020, he said.

“They’re very successful and very busy,” Sickler said of the team, which is supported by a state grant.

Some out-of-state residents, Oregonians and cartels are using Oregon as a place to grow marijuana, then ship it to states where it isn’t allowed and can bring higher profits. Sometimes they trade locally grown marijuana for heroin and methamphetamine, which they sell to people in the community, he said.

“There’s a litany of crimes associated with marijuana,” Sickler said. “We’ve had homicides, robberies, burglaries, home invasions, weapons charges, theft and other crimes. If you want to do it legitimately, we want to support that. But there are people who want to circumvent the system.”

He said illegal operators are undercutting marijuana and hemp growers who abide by the rules. Criminals are tarnishing the reputation of the industry and endangering the community.

Jackson County commissioners agreed Tuesday to send a letter to the Oregon Legislature backing the bill, which was introduced by state Rep. Lily Morgan, a Grants Pass Republican abd former Josephine County commissioner.

Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel supports the bill as well.

“The Jackson County Board of Commissioners recognizes the difficulty that the Oregon Department of Agriculture has had enforcing cannabis grow violations on permitted hemp farms, and we believe that House Bill 2296 will provide a solution to meet this need,” commissioners said in their letter. “The Board of Commissioners, in conjunction with the Jackson County Marijuana Advisory Committee and Jackson County Sheriff Nate Sickler, unanimously recommends and supports the provisions of HB 2296 as submitted by Representative Lily Morgan.”

The Jackson County Marijuana Advisory Committee includes business owners in the industry.

“There’s a wide range of support from law enforcement and people in the marijuana industry who believe this will help with issues locally,” Sickler said. “This is a good step.”

According to the sheriffs in Jackson and Josephine counties, the Oregon Department of Agriculture doesn’t have the resources to adequately oversee hemp operations.

Under House Bill 2296, when hemp growers sign a hemp grower registration application, they would automatically be giving consent for the ODA or law enforcement to access their premises, collect samples and use those samples for law enforcement purposes. The ODA or law enforcement would have to have reasonable grounds to believe that the hemp crop violates hemp or marijuana laws.

Growers who refuse to allow law enforcement personnel on their property could have their licenses put under review or revoked by the ODA, Sickler said.

Not everyone wants police to be able to walk onto their property without permission or a search warrant.

“I’m totally against this bill,” said Mark Taylor, director of the Southern Oregon Hemp Co-op, whose members operate 2,000 acres of farms in the area.

Taylor said anyone who supports the Constitution and private property rights should oppose the bill.

“Private property is just that — private property,” he said.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution generally protects people and their property from unreasonable searches and seizures, and says warrants can only be issued based on probable cause. Warrants have to specify the place to be searched and the people or things to be seized.

There are exceptions to protections against searches. Drivers suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol, for example, must submit to Breathalyzer tests to measure their blood alcohol level. “Implied consent” laws requiring drivers to submit to breath tests or face legal consequences exist in all 50 states.

Drivers convicted of refusing to take the test face fines and the suspension of their driver’s license for at least a year under Oregon law.

Sickler said it’s not too much to ask that when people sign up to grow hemp, they also agree to be subject to inspections by law enforcement.

Taylor said the vast majority of local hemp growers are following the law. There might be illegal marijuana grows tucked away in the woods, but he said there’s no widespread problem of people growing illegal marijuana under the guise of a hemp grow.

He said some hemp growers do occasionally struggle with hemp plants that have too much THC, although that’s due to natural variations when farming.

Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that produces the feeling of being high. Hemp, by contrast, has low levels of THC and is often grown to maximize cannabidiol, or CBD. CBD is touted as having health benefits.

Taylor said the bill in the Oregon Legislature is an extreme measure that would waste the resources of law enforcement and hemp growers.

“I don’t see why current laws are not adequate to control something they say is happening,” he said.

Taylor said many hemp growers are already struggling because of the economic times and challenges of farming — not because they’re being undercut by illegal growers. They’ve invested millions of dollars in the economy in their efforts to grow a legal crop. Meanwhile, regulations keep changing every year.

“Rule changes really affect small businesses, especially farmers,” he said.

In 2019, Jackson County was the state’s top grower of hemp, with 8,579 acres under cultivation. But growers struggled with mold, fires, insect infestations and a lack of drying and processing facilities to convert the hemp into marketable products. That number dropped to 6,327 acres in 2020 — although Jackson County still retained its top position.

Josephine County was in second place in 2020 with 3,017 acres of hemp under cultivation.

Sickler said there are key differences between regular agricultural crops and marijuana and hemp. The current system for regulating and inspecting hemp grows isn’t adequate to address the criminal activity that is going on, he said.

“Peaches and pears don’t have a THC version,” he said.

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

Workers go through a field of hemp plants at a farm near Talent in this 2020 file photo.Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune