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An Oregon county declared a state of emergency and is requesting $750,000, 45 new employees and the National Guard, which officials say is necessary because the illegal businesses are running rampant, depleting resources and spiking crime.
Overwhelmed by illegal marijuana farms, a county in southern Oregon declared a state of emergency and pleaded with state lawmakers to send enforcement help and additional resources.
In a letter sent last week, the Jackson County Board of Commissioners asked Gov. Kate Brown and state legislative leaders for “substantial state assistance, immediately.” Among their specific requests: 18 detectives, four patrol deputies, nine support staff, three supervisors and $750,000 per year for “materials and services...to address the crimes related to illegal marijuana production.”
“We are willing to take assistance in whatever form you can provide,” the board said.
Growing, selling and recreational use of marijuana has been legal for seven years, since voters approved them via a ballot measure in 2014. Pot growers are required to obtain a license from the state Liquor and Cannabis Commission, which is tasked with oversight and enforcement. But illegal farms abound across the state. The problem is particularly pronounced in Jackson County and its surrounding areas, which comprise what Sheriff Nathan Sickler called “the emerald triangle.”
“We are in an area that is apparently very conducive to growing marijuana,” he said at a press conference discussing the emergency declaration. “There’s some name recognition. This area is known for growing high-quality marijuana...it commands a higher dollar value across the U.S., and even in other places in the world, so it’s a desirable place for people to say they have cultivated their crop.”
The county is likely home to at least as many illegal farms as registered operations, officials said, many of them eluding detection by posing as hemp farms. State regulators “have reported that nearly 50% of registered hemp growers are illegally growing marijuana, that 25% of registered hemp growers are refusing entry to inspectors, and only 25% of registered hemp growers are operating within the requirements of the law,” the board wrote.
The influx of farming operations has created multiple headaches for the county. Code enforcement complaints have spiked—as of Sept. 30, the county had fielded 1,006 calls, 663 of them related to marijuana, compared to 902 and 333 in the entirety of 2016—overwhelming the department and leading to case backlogs, according to data from the board.
“Citations which took three weeks to resolve prior to 2014 now take four months or longer,” the board said.
The Water Resources Department has also fielded increasing numbers of complaints—from 39 in 2015 to a projected 275 this year—as water is diverted to illegal growing operations, said Jackson County Commissioner Rick Dyer. Staffing levels have not kept pace with that demand, he added.
“In our current declared drought emergency,” he said at the press conference, “Water Resources is unable to take action on nearly one-third of the complaints they receive, which include water theft and other offenses that exacerbate the water shortage and put existing water rights in jeopardy.”
Crimes have also spiked, including increased reports of burglary, theft, assault and robbery, Dyer said.
“There is also significant evidence of narco-slavery, forced labor, human trafficking, immigration issues, squalid and unsafe living conditions, exploitation and abuse of workers, child welfare issues and animal abuse,” he said. “Also, there has been a significant increase in the amount of marijuana transported out of Jackson County and out of our state.”
As if to prove the point, one day after Dyer’s remarks a law enforcement team raided an unlicensed marijuana farm in Jackson County, seizing 17,000 plants and roughly 4,000 pounds of processed marijuana. Twenty-six migrant workers were interviewed and then released, and an arrest warrant for the “primary suspect” remains outstanding.
Calling in the National Guard
County officials said this week their request for help could include assistance from the Oregon National Guard, an idea that drew support from state Senate President Peter Courtney, a Democrat and one recipient of the board’s letter.
“You can’t solve it at the local level, and you cannot solve it, I’m afraid, just at the usual state level, and have some more state troopers down there,” he told the Associated Press. “The National Guard, they’re going to have to get deployed down there some way or other.”
A spokeswoman for Brown said the governor “takes this issue seriously,” noting that she supported, and worked to quickly implement, legislation that overhauled the state’s regulation of hemp growers, including a protocol to inspect and test those farms for the presence of illegal cannabis. The Oregon Military Department has full-time National Guard service members embedded in three law enforcement teams in the southern part of the state, she added.
But Brown won’t deploy the National Guard to address the issue, given the timing of the request and the ongoing efforts of service members to assist hospitals with a surge of Covid-19 cases.
“Because the current growing season is drawing to a close—and because [National Guard] members are currently deployed to support our hospitals due to the Delta surge—we are not considering deploying additional resources this year,” Elizabeth Merah, the governor’s press secretary, said via email. “The governor remains concerned about the situation and will continue to monitor what resources might be needed for the 2022 growing season.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.