Flooded in illegal pots, Oregon plans millions for relief efforts

SALEM, Ore. (AP) – Theft of water below a drought. Exploitation of immigrant workers. Intimidation of residents by armed criminals.

A senator from the Democratic state of southern Oregon said his region, flooded with illegal marijuana farms protected by armed men, has begun to look like a failed state.

After hearing him and other witnesses this week, the Oregon legislature dedicated $ 25 million to help police, sheriff’s offices and community organizations pay for the hefty costs of cracking down on the thousands of industrial-scale illegal pots. Residents said help is welcome, but not enough.

Seven years after Oregon voters passed a voting measure that legalized the recreational use of marijuana and its regulated cultivation and sale, the state is battling an explosion of illegal marijuana farms that has rudely emerged, primarily in the counties of Josephine and Jackson in the south.

Hinged houses – cheaply built greenhouses – have been built along highways and within city limits, where many growers claim to be legal hemp farmers but grow plants with illegal amounts of THC, the component that creates the “high”.

The illegal industry generates billions of dollars in profits and is funded by well-heeled foreign criminal gangs and drug cartels, law enforcement officials said.

Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler told lawmakers that the cartels “have a business model: set up more illegal cannabis plants than law enforcement can ever get. They know we get some, but they know we can not get it all.”

A farmer in southern Oregon – who used a creek to irrigate his crops before it ran dry because an illegal pot farm leaked the water, while the West handles a climate change-driven drought – blames the state for not having enough inspectors to decide, which cannabis farms claim to be hemp that actually grows hemp. He spoke on condition that he was not identified because he is concerned that the cartels may retaliate against him.

The farmer also blames landowners for selling or renting property to bad actors.

“If someone walks into your property with a suitcase of $ 100,000 in $ 20 banknotes, you kind of know they’re not moving forward. And if you take that money and allow them to do something on your land, you probably expect them to be there to break the law, ”he said.

Late. Jeff Golden, a Democrat from the southern city of Ashland, said some rural areas are “military weapon zones, like the ones we usually associate with failed states.”

“Illegal cannabis operations in southern Oregon have used our limited water supply, abused local workers, threatened neighbors and adversely affected businesses run by legal marijuana growers,” said Golden, who pushed for the measure and related funding on the agenda of one . -day special session.

Golden and two other lawmakers from Southern Oregon, Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, and Rep. Lily Morgan, R-Grants Pass, said earlier that I a letter to Governor Kate Brown that workers on the illegal farms are being subjected to “conditions approaching slavery.”

Some are also deprived of their promised salary.

A 27-year-old Argentine man said in an interview on Wednesday that in August last year, he learned through a WhatsApp messaging group that there was a need for workers on a potty farm in southern Oregon. At the time, he was working on a potted farm in Humboldt County, California. He then went to the place near Cave Junction, Oregon, and expected to be paid $ 2,500 for three weeks of work.

He made 12-hour shifts under the hot sun, tending the plants and sleeping in a tent. When three weeks had passed, he and other workers went to the farm manager to get paid.

“He did not even look at us. He sat in his pickup and left,” said the worker, who is in the U.S. on a tourist visa. He spoke on condition that he was not named because of federal immigration laws.

When he called the manager, there was no answer. Another worker went to the farm for pay, but had a gun aimed at him.

“The truth is, I’m very disappointed and I do not understand why they were like that to me when I was respectful and I worked all the hours they asked me to,” the man said over the phone from Florida, where he tried to find temporary work before flying home for Christmas.

T he invoices adopted by the Legislative Assembly on Monday and signed by the governor on Tuesday, establishes the “Illegal Marijuana Market Enforcement Grant Program” to assist cities and counties with costs incurred by local law enforcement agencies to deal with illegal pot farms. It will be administered by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission.

“It will help,” said Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel. “But the problem is metastasizing across the country.”

The sheriff’s offices and other law enforcement agencies applying for grants will have to work with community-based organizations to deal with human trafficking, said Morgan, the lawmaker. Of the $ 25 million, $ 5 million is dedicated to enforcing water rights.

Several bills coming into the Legislative Assembly in 2022 will address additional needs, she said.


Follow Andrew Selsky on Twitter at https://twitter.com/andrewselsky

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