Oregon Allots $25M To Combat Illicit Cannabis Grows

Lawmakers in Oregon have passed legislation to address the state’s burgeoning illicit cannabis cultivation industry, allotting $25 million to help law enforcement and community organizations fight illegal cannabis growing operations.

Oregon voters legalized recreational marijuana and authorized regulated cannabis production and sales in 2014. Since then, illegal cultivation operations have popped up in droves, particularly in Klamath, Jackson, and Josephine Counties in the southern portion of the state. State Sen. Jeff Golden, who worked to get the bill added to the agenda for a one-day legislative special session last week, said that some rural areas of Oregon are “military-weapons zones, like the ones we usually associate with failed states.”

Golden said that many of the illegal cultivation operations are run by criminal cartels that are guilty of human trafficking, labor abuses, intimidation of local residents and theft of water during a persistent 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 added.

The measure, Senate Bill 893, was passed by Oregon state lawmakers on December 13 and signed into law by Gov. Kate Brown the following day. The new law establishes a $25 million “Illegal Marijuana Market Enforcement Grant Program” to assist local police, sheriff’s departments and other organizations address the illegal cannabis cultivation in their communities, including $5 million earmarked for the enforcement of water rights. Local law enforcement agencies that receive grants from the program will be required to work with community-based groups to address labor trafficking. 

Earlier this year, Golden and state Reps. Pam Marsh and Lily Morgan wrote to a letter to the governor calling for help to fight illegal cannabis cultivation in Oregon’s Rogue Valley.

“The damaging impacts, including human trafficking of a labor force in conditions approaching slavery, severe aggravation of the drought through massive and systematic water theft, long-term damage to agricultural lands from various polluting practices, and the financial ruin of licensed growers whose compliance obligations make competition impossible are hard to overstate,” they wrote.

Is It Hemp or Cannabis?

Much of the illicit cannabis cultivation is occurring on farms that are ostensibly growing hemp, which was legalized at the federal level with the 2018 Farm Bill and is subject to far less stringent regulations than cannabis. The Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission recently reported that nearly half of the registered hemp farms inspected by the state are actually growing cannabis. About 25 percent of the hemp operations refused entry to inspectors, according to state agencies.

Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler told lawmakers the cartels “have a business model: Put up more cannabis illegal grows than law enforcement can ever get. They know we’re going to get some, but they know we can’t get it all.”

A southern Oregon farmer told the Associated Press that a creek he used to irrigate his crops has run dry due because illegal cannabis grows have stolen the water. He believes that the state does not have enough inspectors to ensure that farms are actually growing hemp and not cannabis. He also blames landowners who sell or lease property to shady operators.

“If somebody walks onto your property with a suitcase with $100,000 in $20 bills, you kind of know they’re not on the up and up,” the unidentified farmer said. “And if you take that money and allow them to do something on your land, you should probably anticipate that they’re there to break the law.”

Local Official Declare State of Emergency

In October, Jackson County officials declared a state of emergency over the illegal cannabis cultivation operations, calling on Brown, state Senate President Peter Courtney, and Oregon House of Representatives Speaker Tina Kotek for help.

“Jackson County strongly requests your assistance to address this emergency,” members of the county Board of Commissioners wrote in a letter to state leaders.

The commissioners called for funding, manpower and state National Guard troops to help deal with the problem of illegal marijuana cultivation in the county. Members of the board said that law enforcement, local code compliance officers, and state cannabis regulators have been overburdened by the illicit activity and warned of an “imminent threat to the public health and safety of our citizens from the illegal production of cannabis in our county.”

Passed by the legislature as an emergency measure, Senate Bill 893 goes into effect immediately. Morgan told reporters bills planned for the 2022 legislative session will further address the issue.

Residents and law enforcement officers welcomed the funding provided by the legislation, but predicted that $25 million will not be enough to control the problem of illicit cannabis production in Oregon.

“It will help,” said Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel. “But the issue is metastasizing statewide.”

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