On Wednesday, October 13, the Jackson County Board of Commissioners in Oregon declared a state of emergency in regards to the growing number of illegal cannabis cultivation sites, and not having enough staff to deal with complaints.
Chair of the Board Rick Dyer and Commissioners Dave Dotterrer and Colleen Roberts wrote a letter to the office of Governor Kate Brown, requesting assistance in dealing with the issue. “Since recreational marijuana was legalized by the voters of Oregon at the November 2014 General Election, the illegal and unlawful production of marijuana in our County has overwhelmed the ability of our County and State regulators to enforce relevant laws in our community. Jackson County strongly requests your assistance to address this emergency,” the authors wrote in their letter.
A part of this struggle is that the Oregon Water Resources Department only has four full-time employees to address complaints submitted in both Jackson County and neighboring Josephine County. Both of these counties’ natural areas have become ideal target locations for illegal cultivation, with growers siphoning water from local creeks and groundwater.
The commissioner’s letter also brings up recent data collected by state agencies regarding the rapid increase of illegal grows. “Additionally, State regulators from the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) and the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission (OLCC) have reported that nearly 50 percent of registered hemp grows are illegally growing marijuana, that 25 percent of registered hemp grows are refusing entry to inspectors, and only 25 percent of registered hemp grows are operating within the requirements of the law,” the authors state. “Further, State regulators from OHA and OLCC are unable to take any action on the unregistered and unlicensed hemp and marijuana grows in our County, which law enforcement estimates far exceeds the number of licensed and registered grows.” According to Oregon Public Broadcasting, the Jackson County Code Enforcement Division filed nearly 700 violations in relation to cannabis production or processing—more than twice the cases filed in 2016.
The authors also address recent 2021 legislation aimed at providing resources and assistance, but even so, the situation is so dire that the commissioners are asking for a more definite solution. “Jackson County needs long-term, dedicated, and guaranteed funding for both itself, and the relevant State agencies to ensure that cannabis production is being lawfully and legally conducted in our community.”
Governor Brown’s spokesperson, Charles Boyle, has already issued a response to the recent letter. “The message is clear—Oregon is not open for business to illegal cannabis grows,” said Boyle. “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.” The commissioners have requested that they increase their code enforcement team to nine officers to accommodate the flow of citations, as well as 34 more staff members at the sheriff’s office (18 of which would be detectives), and three more individuals to help curb complaints related to illegal water usage.
The commissioners concluded their letter with a critical statement: “We implore of you, please provide assistance now, before an already out of control situation becomes even worse.”
There are numerous examples of how the problem is already increasing beyond control. One notably large illegal grow was discovered on October 6 in Klamath Falls, allegedly in 27,000 square foot potato shed. This particular operation was described by Sheriff Chris Klaber, who said he had never seen anything like it in his 30 years of service. “I’ve had to completely readjust my sense of where we are in fighting illegal marijuana production in Klamath,” Klaber said. “I didn’t think we were this far behind.”
Another illegal grow investigation in Jackson County led to the destruction of 17,522 plants and 3,900 of processed cannabis. Public Information Officers of the county, Aaron Lewis, echoed the worry about illegal grows in southern Oregon. “So the illegal marijuana problem in Jackson County is rather large,” said Lewis. “We have an area that is very conducive to growing outdoor marijuana. So it’s been very difficult to stay on top of some of the scope of some of the operations here in the Valley. There’s a lot of investigative work to identify major players in the game, and from there take down these processing facilities and get some of the illegal marijuana off of the street.”