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Oregon Authorities Link Illicit Pot Farms to Mexican Cartels

Southern Oregon law enforcement officers say that illegal marijuana cultivation is being linked to Mexican drug cartels who seek to overtake local resources and maximize their profits. 

Officials in Jackson County declared an emergency over the last month. They stated that illegal pot farms were putting pressure on local resources and law enforcement. The Jackson County Board Commissioners wrote to Kate Brown, Oregon’s Governor, and other state legislators to request more funds and staff to assist with law enforcement efforts and compliance in this area. 

Rick Dyer, Jackson County commissioner, said that there are other illicit activities, including forced labor, human trafficking and human trafficking. These illegalities can be linked to Oregon’s unregulated cannabis cultivation. Oregon has legalized marijuana commerce for licensed businesses. Illegal marijuana growers often abuse and intimidate their employees, many of whom are minors or parents with young children.

“This is cartel activity,” Dyer said. “A human rights crisis is what we are seeing going on at these grows.”

Oregon Officials Search for a Regional Solution

Jackson County officials hope their counterparts from Josephine and Klamath Counties will also declare a similar emergency to send a united message to the state leadership.

“It’s harder to ignore when it’s a regional declaration of an emergency,” Dyer said. “And the more of a united front we present it will make it harder to ignore. It is a regional problem, and it could be a regional solution.”

Earlier this month, sheriff’s deputies in Klamath County discovered a 27,000-square-foot potato shed filled with illicit cannabis in various stages of processing. Klamath County Sheriff Chris Klaber told local media that “he had never seen anything like it in 30 years of police work.”

Following a warrant being issued for the search of the property, further investigations revealed that the illegal cannabis activity in the potato shed was connected with two unlicensed marijuana processing and cultivation sites.

“I’ve had to completely readjust my sense of where we are in fighting illegal marijuana production in Klamath,” Klaber said, as quoted by the Herald and News. “I didn’t think we were this far behind.”

“This really is—and I’ve said it before—organized criminal activity,” Kaber added. “This definitely fits the definition in Oregon of what organized criminal activity is.”

Local Resources are overwhelmed by Illicit Activity

According to Sergeant Cliff Barden, the Oregon State Police Basin Interagency Narcotics Enforcement Team believes the illegal cultivation activities are tied to drug cartels. The criminal organization’s strategy is to create so much marijuana illegally that local law enforcement agencies can no longer keep up.

“They are intentionally trying to overwhelm the system,” he said. “And that is why it is so difficult.”

Barden admitted that smaller growers are often unlicensed independent operators looking to make a profit on the illegal market. Larger cultivation operations, however, are controlled often by Mexican drug cartels. Sometimes they can also be managed through California-based intermediaries.

“If they are smaller grows—one to two greenhouses or less—that could be anything, generally just some little crew trying to make some money,” Barden said. “Almost all of the large grows—with dozens and dozens of greenhouses or even more, especially this year—have all been the exact same type of operations that are all coordinated from out of state, run by some mid-level person connected to Mexico.”

Dyer stated that many operations cultivating illegal marijuana pretend to be hemp-growing farms. This is legal in Oregon. However, it is less closely regulated.

“We are finding that 75 to 80 percent of these registered hemp grows are growing illegal marijuana,” he said. “There are probably three or four times the amount of unregistered hemp grows than there are registered grows.”

Officials hope that the increased enforcement and the emergency declaration will create an effective deterrent against illegal activity, which could help stem the rise in illicit cannabis cultivation. However, this will not be possible without regaining the ground they lost over years.

“Our short-term goal here, locally, is basically to show the organized crime operations that Klamath County is not a place they will be left alone or be safe, and that we will work aggressively to enforce the laws we have so they have a harder time making a profit here,” Barden said.

“After this year, with just a little show of enforcement, we’ll hopefully, gradually get better and better. That’s what I’m hoping for. Before this year, there really wasn’t much marijuana enforcement at all for quite a few years, and it kind of exploded because of that.”