Law enforcement officers and other authorities in southern Oregon say that a rash of illegal marijuana cultivation operations in the area are linked to Mexican drug cartels intent on overwhelming local resources as a strategy to maximize profits.
In Jackson County, officials declared a state of emergency last month and said that the proliferation of illicit pot farms had strained local law enforcement and other resources. In a letter to Oregon Governor Kate Brown and state lawmakers, the Jackson County Board Commissioners called for more funding and personnel to support law enforcement and code compliance efforts in the area.
Jackson County Commissioner Rick Dyer told reporters that other illegal activities including human trafficking, forced labor and unsafe living conditions for workers are tied to the unregulated marijuana cultivation in Oregon, where cannabis commerce is legal for licensed businesses. He added that illegal operators intimidate and abuse their workers, who are often minors or the parents of young children.
“This is cartel activity,” Dyer said. “A human rights crisis is what we are seeing going on at these grows.”
Oregon Officials Seek Regional Solution
Officials in Jackson County hope that their counterparts in neighboring Klamath and Josephine Counties will declare a similar state of emergency so that the region sends a unified message to state leaders.
“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.”
After serving a search warrant on the property and further investigation, the illicit cannabis activities in the potato shed were connected to two other unlicensed marijuana cultivation and processing sites in the area.
“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.”
Illicit Activity Overwhelms Local Resources
Sergeant Cliff Barden of the Oregon State Police Basin Interagency Narcotics Enforcement Team also says that the illicit cultivation operations are linked to drug cartels. He believes that the strategy of the criminal organizations is to produce so much illicit marijuana that local law enforcement agencies are unable to keep up with the volume of illegal activity.
“They are intentionally trying to overwhelm the system,” he said. “And that is why it is so difficult.”
Barden acknowledged that many of the smaller grows are independent unlicensed operators hoping to profit from the illicit market. But larger cultivation operations are often controlled by drug cartels in Mexico, sometimes through a go-between located in California.
“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 noted that many of the operations growing illicit marijuana are masquerading as farms cultivating hemp, which is also legal in Oregon but less tightly 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.”
With the state of emergency and increased law enforcement, officials hope to create a deterrent to unlicensed activity that helps stem the tide of illegal cannabis cultivation. But before that can happen, they will have to make up for years of lost ground.
“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.”