Oregon County Declares State of Emergency Due to Illegal Grows

Local leaders of a county in southern Oregon declared a state of emergency on Wednesday, saying that the illegal production of marijuana in the community is a threat to public safety. In a letter to state leaders, the Jackson County Board of Commissioners said that the proliferation of illicit cannabis farms in the area has overwhelmed local law enforcement.

“Jackson County strongly requests your assistance to address this emergency,” the commissioners said in the letter to Gov. Kate Brown, state Senate President Peter Courtney, and Oregon House of Representatives Speaker Tina Kotek.

The commissioners are calling 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.”

“Since recreational marijuana was legalized by the voters of Oregon in the November 2014 general election, the illegal and unlawful production of marijuana in our county has overwhelmed the ability of our county and state regulators to enforce relevant laws in our community,” Jackson County Commissioner Rick Dyer said in a video press conference on Wednesday.

Law Enforcement Calls for Service Spike with Legalization

Advocates for legalizing recreational marijuana in Oregon campaigned on assertions that cannabis reform would reduce the burden on law enforcement agencies. In Jackson County, however, local police have seen a spike in crime they say is related to illicit cannabis cultivation.

“Law enforcement in Jackson County reports a 59 percent increase in calls for service associated with the marijuana industry, including burglary, theft, assault, robbery, and nuisance crimes,” Dyer said. “And there’s also significant evidence of narco-slavery, forced labor, human trafficking, immigration issues, squalid and unsafe living conditions and exploitation and abuse of workers, child welfare issues and animal abuse.”

This year, the sheriff’s office received a state grant to add two detectives and a property and evidence clerk to the payroll to help combat illegal cannabis farms. But to properly address the issue, Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler said that the community needs an additional 18 detectives, four patrol deputies, three supervisors, and nine support personal, as well as $750,000 per year to cover expenses for services and materials. 

Aaron Lewis, a public information officer for the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, told reporters that “the illegal marijuana problem in Jackson County is rather large.” 

“We have an area that is very conducive to growing outdoor marijuana. So it’s been very difficult to stay on top of some of the scope of some of the operations here in the Valley,” Lewis said. “There’s a lot of investigative work to identify major players in the game, and from there take down these processing facilities and get some of the illegal marijuana off of the street.”

Eradicating an illegal cannabis grow operation involves disassembling greenhouses, uprooting thousands of marijuana plants, confiscating and processing evidence including firearms, as well as detaining or arresting workers on the site. At a raid on an unlicensed cultivation facility on Wednesday morning, officers with the Jackson County Illegal Marijuana Enforcement Team destroyed 17,522 cannabis plants and about 3,900 pounds of harvested marijuana while taken three people into custody, according to a report in local media.

Public Agencies Strained by Enforcement Workload

The extent of illegal cannabis cultivation also strains the resources of other public agencies. In 2015, Jackson County code enforcement personnel handled 604 cases, none of which were related to marijuana. Through September of this year, the office has had 1,006 cases, with 663 of those related to cannabis cultivation. The local office of the Oregon Water Resources Department has also seen a spike in activity, with complaints of water theft jumping from 39 in 2015 to 195 this year.

Much of the illicit cannabis cultivation is occurring on what are ostensibly hemp farms. 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 marijuana. About 25 percent of the hemp operations refused entry to inspectors, according to state agencies.

Charles Boyle, a spokesman for Brown, said that the governor takes the situation in Jackson County very seriously, noting that she created a multi-agency team to fight illegal marijuana cultivation after lawmakers passed legislation amending how the state regulates its hemp and cannabis industries. Brown also directed the Oregon State Police to dedicate additional resources to the area and doubled funding for cannabis law enforcement grants in the region.

“The message is clear – Oregon is not open for business to illegal cannabis grows,” Boyle said. “These are criminal enterprises that deplete water resources while our state is in drought, hold their workforce in inhumane conditions and severely harm our legal cannabis marketplace.”
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