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Overwhelmed by illegal pot, Oregon county declares emergency

·4 min read
FILE — In this April 14, 2016, file photo, investigators load marijuana plants onto a Colorado National Guard truck outside a suspected illegal grow operation in north Denver. A county in southern Oregon says it is so overwhelmed by an increase in the number and size of illegal marijuana farms that it declared a state of emergency Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, appealing to the governor and the Legislature's leaders for help. (AP Photo/P. Solomon Banda, File)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — A county in southern Oregon says it is so overwhelmed by an increase in the number and size of illegal marijuana farms that it declared a state of emergency Wednesday, appealing to the governor and the Legislature's leaders for help.

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners said law enforcement officers and county and state regulators and code enforcers are overwhelmed and warned of an “imminent threat to the public health and safety of our citizens from the illegal production of cannabis in our county.”

Illegal marijuana grows have been a persistent problem throughout the West, even in states like California that have legalized pot. A megadrought across the West has created urgency, though, as illegal growers steal water, depriving legal users including farmers and homeowners of the increasingly precious resource.

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

Only four Oregon Water Resources Department full-time employees handle complaints and perform all of their other duties in Jackson County and neighboring Josephine County, the commissioners said.

Josephine County has also been hurt by illegal grows that have drained creeks and siphoned off groundwater. Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel believes there are hundreds of illegal operations in his county alone. One with 72,000 marijuana plants that was drawing water from the Illinois River was raided after a dying person who worked there was dropped off in a nearby village.

Oregon voters made producing, processing, selling and using recreational marijuana legal in a ballot measure in 2014. Pot businesses must be registered by the state, which enforces compliance with rules. But some growers and processers remain outside the law, joined by a recent influx of outsiders in Jackson and Josephine counties who seek large profits by selling on the black market outside of Oregon while avoiding state taxes and regulations.

The illegal marijuana farms are often posing as legal hemp farms, the commissioners noted. The Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission recently reported that nearly 50% of registered hemp farms inspected in the state are illegally growing marijuana, with a THC content — the compound that gives cannabis its high — greater than legal limits.

About 25% of registered hemp farms refused entry to inspectors, the state agencies said. In busts of illegal marijuana grows, sheriff's deputies have often seized firearms.

By September of this year, the Jackson County Code Enforcement Division initiated almost 700 cases of code violations related to marijuana production or processing, more than double the number in all of 2016, the commissioners said in their emergency declaration.

Reacting to the commissioner's letter, Brown's spokesman, Charles Boyle, said the governor takes these concerns very seriously.

He noted that after the Legislature passed a bill this year that shifted how the state regulates the hemp industry and was aimed at curbing illegal production of cannabis, Brown created a multi-agency team to implement the legislation.

She also authorized doubling the size of cannabis law enforcement grants in the region and directed the Oregon State Police to dedicate additional resources.

“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.”

For her part, Kotek's spokesman Danny Moran said her office is reviewing the issues raised by Jackson County Commission Chair Rick Dyer and Commissioners Dave Dotterrer and Colleen Roberts and "looks forward to further conversations about the best path forward.”

The commissioners said their code enforcement staff needs to triple to nine officers; more officers are needed to adjudicate the volume of citations; the sheriff's office needs 34 more staffers, including 18 detectives; and the state Water Resources Department needs three more full-time staff dedicated solely to investigating water-related complaints.

To reach those levels, the commissioners asked for additional state employees, state funding for the county to hire employees and contractors and for a repeal of a prohibition on local taxes on registered, legal marijuana businesses.