SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Theft of water during a drought. Exploitation of immigrant laborers. Intimidation of residents by armed criminals.
A Democratic state senator from southern Oregon said his region, awash in illegal marijuana farms that are protected by gunmen, is starting to look more like a failed state.
After hearing him and others testify this week, the Oregon Legislature dedicated $25 million to help police, sheriff's offices and community organizations pay for the ballooning costs of cracking down on the thousands of industrial-scale, illegal pot farms. Residents said the assistance is welcome but not enough.
Seven years after Oregon voters passed a ballot measure legalizing the recreational use of marijuana and its regulated cultivation and sale, the state is grappling with an explosion of illegal marijuana farms that have brazenly cropped up, primarily in Josephine and Jackson counties in the south.
Hoop houses — cheaply built greenhouses — have been erected along highways and within city limits, with many growers claiming to be legal hemp farmers but cultivating plants with illegal amounts of THC, the component that creates the “high."
The illicit industry is generating billions of dollars in profits and is financed by well-heeled foreign criminal gangs and drug cartels, law enforcement officials said.
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 farmer in southern Oregon — who used a creek for irrigating his crops before it ran dry because an illegal pot farm siphoned off the water, all while the West deals with a climate-change-fueled drought — blames the state for not having enough inspectors to determine which cannabis farms claiming to be hemp really are growing hemp. He spoke on condition he not be identified because he worries the cartels could retaliate against him.
The farmer also blames landowners for selling or leasing property to bad actors.
“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. 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,” he said.
Sen. Jeff Golden, a Democrat from the southern town of Ashland, said some rural areas are “military-weapons zones, like the ones we usually associate with failed states.”
“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,” said Golden, who pushed to get the measure and related funding on the agenda for the one-day special session.
Golden and two other lawmakers from southern Oregon, Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, and Rep. Lily Morgan, R-Grants Pass, previously said i n a letter to Gov. Kate Brown that workers on the illegal farms are subjected to “conditions approaching slavery.”
Some are also being deprived of their promised wages.
A 27-year-old Argentinian man said in an interview Wednesday that he learned last August through a WhatsApp message group that workers were needed on a pot farm in southern Oregon. At the time, he was working on a pot farm in Humboldt County, California. He then went to the location near Cave Junction, Oregon, expecting to be paid $2,500 for three weeks of work.
He did 12-hour shifts under the hot sun tending the plants and slept in a tent. When three weeks were up, he and other workers went to the farm manager to get paid.
“He didn't even look at us. He got in his pickup truck and left,” the worker, who is in the U.S. on a tourist visa, said. He spoke on condition he not be named because of federal immigration laws.
When he called the manager, there was no answer. Another worker went to the farm for the wages but had a gun aimed at him.
“The truth is, I'm very disappointed and I don't understand why they were that way with me when I was respectful and I worked all the hours they asked of me," the man said over the phone from Florida, where he was trying to find temporary work before flying home for Christmas.
T he bill passed by the Legislature Monday and signed by the governor on Tuesday establishes the “Illegal Marijuana Market Enforcement Grant Program” to assist cities and counties with costs incurred by local law enforcement in addressing illegal pot farms. It will be administered by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission.
“It will help,” said Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel. “But the issue is metastasizing statewide.”
Sheriff's offices and other law enforcement that apply for the grants will have to work with community-based organizations to deal with the labor trafficking, said Morgan, the lawmaker. Of the $25 million, $5 million is dedicated to enforcing water rights.
Several bills coming in the 2022 legislative session will address further needs, she said.