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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.

In 2014, Oregon’s voters approved recreational cannabis and allowed for regulated sales. Illegal cultivation has increased in numbers in southern Oregon’s Klamath and Jackson Counties. 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 claimed that the majority of illegal cultivation operations are managed by criminal cartels guilty of human trafficking as well as labor abuses and intimidation.

“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.

Senate Bill 893 (or the measure), was passed on December 13. It was then signed into law in Oregon by Gov. Kate Brown signed the bill into law on December 13. 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. The grant program will require local law enforcement agencies to partner with community-based organizations to combat 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.

Are You Using Hemp or Cannabis?

Many of the illegal cannabis cultivation occurs on farms where the hemp is grown. Hemp was legalized at federal level by the 2018 Farm Bill, and it is subject to much less strict regulations than cannabis. Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission reported recently that almost half of all registered hemp farms under state inspection are actually cultivating cannabis. State agencies report that 25 percent refused inspections.

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.”

An Oregon farmer from the south told us about his experience. Associated PressHe discovered that the creek where he used it to water his plants has dried up because of illegal cannabis growers. According to him, the state doesn’t have enough inspectors who can ensure farms grow hemp. He blames the landowners for letting their property go to unscrupulous 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 declares State of Emergency

Jackson County officials called for Brown, Peter Courtney, Oregon Senate President, and Tina Kotek as they declared an emergency over the illegal marijuana cultivation operation.

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

They called for state National Guard troops and funding to combat illegal marijuana cultivation. 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.”

Senate Bill 893 was passed by the legislature in an emergency measure. It is now effective immediately. Morgan said that the topic will be addressed in additional bills to be introduced during the legislative session 2022.

Law enforcement officers and residents welcomed the provision of funding, however they predicted that the $25 million would not suffice to address the issue.

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