Immigrants Working for Lucrative Illegal Pot Farms Cheated Out of Pay, Fear for Their Lives

Immigrants working on illegal marijuana farms in southern Oregon are being forced to live in squalid conditions and in fear for their lives.

Authorities say that the farms, allegedly disguised as legal hemp farms, are being run by foreign cartels that force their workers to live without the bare essentials and threaten their lives if they don't comply. This revelation comes against the backdrop of violent crime surges and increases in water theft in Jackson and Douglas counties.

Commissioners in Josephine County said the farms are preparing an emergency declaration, citing "rampant violations of county codes, state water laws and criminal laws."

Regulators and officers alike are becoming "overwhelmed by the amount of industrial-scale growing sites, which they say number in the hundreds and possibly thousands," according to the Associated Press.

It is not just the amount of sites that is worrying officials, though, but how the workers on these farms are treated.

"We've had several cases in Josephine County, where they were threatened with guns to their heads, 'If you guys tell anybody, we're going to harm your family in Mexico,' or 'We're going to shoot you,'" said Kathy Keesee-Morales, co-director of immigrant and farmworker advocacy group Unete.

The end to these types of farms might not be immediately in reach.

"This summer was absolutely out of control," said Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel. "We're anticipating next year being just as bad, if not worse."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Oregon Marijuana Farm
Immigrant workers at illegal marijuana farms in Southern Oregon are being forced to live in squalid conditions, according to an investigation. Above, a marijuana bud is seen before harvest near Corvallis, Oregon, on September 13, 2016. AP Photo/Andrew Selsky, File

Jackson and Douglas counties have requested state funding and other resources, including deployment of the National Guard, to properly enforce cannabis laws.

Josephine County commissioners previously wrote a letter to Oregon's Senate president saying the county is experiencing "a tragic surge in narco-slavery."

A spokeswoman for Democratic Governor Kate Brown, Elizabeth Merah, has said that there are no immediate plans to deploy the National Guard.

There aren't enough inspectors to test for THC content at each site to determine which ones are legal and which are not, officials have said. Some sites, frequently with armed guards, have refused entry to state inspectors. Police have said they do not have the capacity to raid all the suspicious sites because each raid requires an investigation and search warrants.

The number of illegal marijuana farms in the region, which are not part of Oregon's legal and regulated marijuana system, surged this year, with some even emerging alongside state highways.

They produce tons of marijuana that is sold outside the state. Officials believe the cartels selected southern Oregon because it's considered part of the fabled marijuana-growing Emerald Triangle, a zone in which California's Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties form the major part.

The region produces top-quality weed that is "the microbrew of cannabis," said state Representative Lily Morgan, a Republican from the small city of Grants Pass, the county seat of Josephine County.

"You can ask a high dollar around the world for it," she said.

Local landowners often rent or sell their property to the illegal growers at prices much higher than normal rates. In one case, an owner went to her land to negotiate a lease renewal and discovered that the manager of the illegal marijuana farm was gone—and had left the growing equipment and workers behind.

Morgan said the owner told county officials: "These people have been left, there are workers who have no I.D., they do not speak English, they have no food."

Oregon's labor bureau is investigating wage complaints from workers at illegal marijuana farms, said Sonia Ramirez, administrator of the bureau's wage and hour division.

Workers have had to use holes in the ground for toilets, bathe with makeshift showers, cook in unsanitary kitchens and live in tents and sleep on cots in shipping containers and in marijuana greenhouses, said Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler.

Sickler said his deputies do not arrest the workers on alleged immigration violations and instead hand out cards, in Spanish, provided by Unete, that list agencies that provide free services for migrants.

The workers are reluctant to talk to law enforcement officials because they are terrified that cartel enforcers might discover that they have done so and harm them or their relatives living elsewhere, Sickler and Keesee-Morales said.

"There is a fear factor," the sheriff said. "These individuals know that they could be at risk for talking to the police about several things, including the conditions, the lack of being paid."

While colder weather now coming to Oregon spells the end of the growing season for many of the marijuana growing sites, indoor illegal operations continue operating through the winter because they are outfitted with heat lamps that allow pot plants to grow.

Sickler doesn't expect a letup of the criminal activity because a lot of cash is involved, creating a tempting target for robbers.

In raids conducted by Sickler's deputies on one day in September on two pot farms, officers found $650,000, 7.5 tons of processed marijuana, and 20,000 pot plants.

Last month, men with guns tried to rob an illegal marijuana growing site and processing facility in the small Jackson County city of Eagle Point. Three men from Sacramento, California were arrested on charges of robbery, unlawful use of a weapon, and assault.

Josephine County
Josephine Country commissioners told the Oregon state senate that the county is experiencing "a tragic surge in narco-slavery." Above, Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel stands amid the debris of plastic hoop houses that were used to grow marijuana illegally near Selma, Oregon, on June 16, 2021. Shaun Hall/Grants Pass Daily Courier via AP, File