Oregon Grappling With Pervasive Amount of Illegal Pot Farms After Legalizing Marijuana

The state of Oregon legalized the recreational use of marijuana seven years ago, yet officials say they're grappling with an explosion of illegal marijuana farms.

Officials say there are thousands of industrial-scale illegal pot farms across the state. The industry generates billions of dollars and is often run by drug cartels and foreign criminal gangs, law enforcement said.

The cartels "have a business model: Put up more cannabis illegal grows than law enforcement can ever get. They know we're going to get some, but they know we can't get it all," Nathan sickler, the Sheriff for Jackson County told lawmakers.

The illegal farms are being put up faster than they're being taken down. Cheap greenhouses, known as Hoop Houses, are often used by farmers claiming to be growing legal hemp but are usually growing plants with illegal amounts of THC, the chemical responsible for weeds' psychological effects.

Some rural parts of the state with illegal farms are like "military-weapons zones, like the one we usually associated with failed states," said Senator Jeff Golden.

In order to help with the ongoing issue, the governor signed the "Illegal Marijuana Market Enforcement Grant Program" Tuesday which will give $25 million to help police, sheriff's office, and community organizations with the costs of stopping illegal pot farms.

"It will help," said Dave Daniel, the Josephine County Sheriff "But the issue is metastasizing statewide."

Dried Hemp Plant
Officials say there are thousands of industrial-scale illegal pot farms across Oregon. The industry generates billions of dollars and is often run by drug cartels and foreign criminal gangs. Above, dried hemp plants are sorted and trimmed at Hepworth Farms in Milton, New York, on April 12, 2021. Seth Wenig/AP Photo

A farmer in southern Oregon—who used a creek for irrigating his crops before it ran dry because an illegal pot farm siphoned off the water, all while the West deals with a climate-change-fueled drought—blames the state for not having enough inspectors to determine which cannabis farms claiming to be hemp really are growing hemp. He spoke on the condition he not be identified because he worries the cartels could retaliate against him.

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

"If somebody walks onto your property with a suitcase with $100,000 in $20 bills, you kind of know they're not on the up and up. And if you take that money and allow them to do something on your land, you should probably anticipate that they're there to break the law," he said.

"Illegal cannabis operations in southern Oregon have been using our limited water supply, abusing local workers, threatening neighbors and negatively impacting businesses run by legal marijuana growers," said Golden, who pushed to get the measure and related funding on the agenda for the one-day special session.

Golden and two other lawmakers from southern Oregon, Representative Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, and Representative Lily Morgan, R-Grants Pass, previously said in a letter to Governor Kate Brown that workers on the illegal farms are subjected to "conditions approaching slavery."

Some are also being deprived of their promised wages.

A 27-year-old Argentinian man said in an interview Wednesday that he learned last August through a WhatsApp message group that workers were needed on a pot farm in southern Oregon. At the time, he was working on a pot farm in Humboldt County, California. He then went to the location near Cave Junction, Oregon, expecting to be paid $2,500 for three weeks of work.

He did 12-hour shifts under the hot sun tending the plants and slept in a tent. When three weeks were up, he and other workers went to the farm manager to get paid.

"He didn't even look at us. He got in his pickup truck and left," the worker, who is in the U.S. on a tourist visa, said. He spoke on the condition he not be named because of federal immigration laws.

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

"The truth is, I'm very disappointed and I don't understand why they were that way with me when I was respectful and I worked all the hours they asked of me," the man said over the phone from Florida, where he was trying to find temporary work before flying home for Christmas.

The bill passed by the Legislature Monday, and the proceeds will be administered by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission.

Sheriff's offices and other law enforcement that apply for the grants will have to work with community-based organizations to deal with the labor trafficking, said Morgan, the lawmaker. Of the $25 million, $5 million is dedicated to enforcing water rights.

Several bills coming in the 2022 legislative session will address further needs, she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Marijuana Farm, Oregon
After hearing testimony this week about the proliferation of illegal marijuana farms in Oregon and their negative impacts, the Oregon Legislature dedicated $25 million to combat them. Above, a marijuana grow is seen on September 2, 2021, in an aerial photo taken by the Deschutes County Sheriff's Office in the community of Alfalfa, Oregon. Deschutes County Sheriff/AP Photo