Oregon officials say illegal marijuana operations in some rural areas of the state are being funded by foreign criminal gangs and drug cartels whose strategy is to expand operations faster than law agencies can stop.
The legislature last week passed the Illegal Marijuana Market Enforcement Grant Program, which provides $25 million in funding to help police crack down on illegal plants, often disguised as cannabis operations, according to law officials.
Both hemp and recreational hemp are legal but are regulated in Oregon.
Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler told lawmakers that illegal operators “have a business model: Putting more illegal cannabis to grow than law enforcement can get.”
“They know we’re going to get some, but they know we can’t have everything,” Sickler told a television station. KVAL.
Senator Jeff Golden, a Democrat from Ashland in Jackson County, said marijuana operations, many of which employ armed guards, often resemble “military weapons zones, like the ones we typically associate with failed states.”
Golden said farmers are also illegally exploiting the area’s limited water supplies, mistreating local workers, threatening neighbors and negatively impacting legal cannabis growers.
Water, labor violations
Law agencies say costs have inflated as they try to monitor farms not only due to illegal marijuana cultivation and water theft, but also business violations.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers wrote to Governor Kate Brown earlier this year noting that workers on illegal plantations are being subjected to “conditions bordering on slavery.” Previous cases of busts have revealed substandard living conditions on farms that often employ seasonal migrant workers.
Under the funding guidelines, police agencies applying for the new grants will have to work with community organizations that deal with labor trafficking. Funding is managed by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission. Of the $25 million, $5 million was earmarked for water rights enforcement.
The volume of illegal growth, mostly concentrated in Jackson, Josephine and Klamath counties on Oregon’s southern border with California, was noted in Bust last month The police seized nearly 250 tons of marijuana, with an estimated value of half a billion dollars.
Illegal farmers are said to pay exorbitant prices for property, labor and water rights, which gives them advantages over legal farmers and disadvantages cannabis growers.
Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel told KVAL that the funding would help, but described the problem of illegal growth as “a statewide spread.”
Farmers said the state needs more inspectors to sort out cannabis operations than those that produce marijuana, and that some landowners are contributing to the problem by selling or renting property to unscrupulous operators.
“If someone walks into your property with a suitcase of $100,000 in $20 bills, you kind of know they’re not in good shape,” one farmer told KVAL. “And if you take that money and let them do something on your land, you can probably expect that they are there to break the law.” The farmer told the station that he spoke anonymously for fear of gang revenge.
The latest funding measure comes after the legislature last July approved a raft of amendments to reduce the burden on resources needed to monitor illegal marijuana operations. These changes also allow law enforcement more flexibility in destroying illicit plants and treated cannabis.
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