SALEM, Ore. — On the same day last week that a southern Oregon county declared a state of emergency amid a sharp increase in illegal cannabis farms, police raided a site that had about 2 tons of processed marijuana and 17,500 pot plants.
The raid illustrates that the proliferation of industrial-scale marijuana farms has gotten so bad and so brazen that Jackson County Commissioners asked Gov. Kate Brown to send in the Oregon National Guard “to assist, as able, in the enforcement of laws related to the production of cannabis.” They also directly appealed to Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek for help getting additional funding to tackle the problem.
During last Wednesday's raid in Medford, near the California border, police found a vast outdoor growing operation, plus harvested plants hanging upside down on drying racks and 3,900 pounds (1,800 kilograms) of resinous buds stashed in huge bags and in stacks of plastic storage containers.
The officers took 26 migrant workers into custody, interviewed them and then released them. An arrest warrant was issued for the primary suspect, the Jackson County Sheriff's Office said.
Courtney said he is so concerned about the surge in illegal marijuana farms in Jackson and neighboring Josephine counties that he agrees the Oregon National Guard should be sent in. Many of the illegal growers are armed.
“You can’t solve it just 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,” the Democrat said. “The National Guard, they’re going to have to get deployed down there some way or other.”
Brown, also a Democrat, is holding off on a deployment for now but could reconsider next year, her office said.
The Josephine County commissioners wrote to Courtney in August to describe how migrant workers are being exploited and subjected to “appalling conditions,” while living in tents with no toilets, no running water or bathing facilities, unrefrigerated food and unsanitary cooking facilities.
Jackson and Josephine counties are considered the northern extension of the Emerald Triangle, a fabled marijuana-growing epicenter, of which California’s Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties form the major part.
The increasing calls for National Guard intervention recalls the drug wars of the 1990s, when the citizen-soldiers were used, including in Missouri and California.
In California's Humboldt County back then, some 200 Army soldiers, National Guardsmen and federal agents raided clandestine pot farms in rugged terrain. Residents responded with protests.
Both Oregon and California in recent years legalized the cultivation, processing and sale of marijuana, so long as those involved enter the regulated systems in each state and abide by the rules. While many have done so, with Oregon in particular reaping a bonanza in marijuana taxes, some growers have resisted.
California has also been hit by industrial-scale illegal marijuana growing operations, with eradication left to local authorities, and in federal territory, to federal officers.
In southern Oregon, the problem has gotten worse recently, law enforcement officials say.
Perhaps recognizing that local law enforcement is stretched thin, foreign cartels began setting up hundreds of unlicensed marijuana growing operations last spring, authorities say.
Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel said he believes the cartel masterminds expect to lose a few growing operations, but the sheer number of them means many will remain untouched until the marijuana is sold on the black market outside Oregon.
However, Daniel said Monday he doesn't believe the National Guard is the answer.
“If you want some National Guard troops to help you cut down plants, great, but you've got to realize there’s a lot of investigation that goes into these operations, to get the search warrants," Daniel said. "You’re going to have National Guard people sitting on their hands for a number of days at a time.”
The sheriff said he'd prefer having investigators from agencies like the Internal Revenue Service follow the money trail, and having the Drug Enforcement Administration involved.
“This is a billion-dollar industry or a multibillion-dollar industry," he said. “Where are they?”
The DEA declined to commnent.
In California, the growing operations are increasing beyond the Emerald Triangle. In July, the largest illegal marijuana bust in Los Angeles County history netted 373,000 plants that authorities say would have been worth $1 billion on the street.
The raid in the Antelope Valley of Southern California's high desert resulted in 131 arrests and the seizure of more than 33,000 pounds (14,969 kilograms) of harvested marijuana plants. That represented only a fraction of the region's illicit growing operations, authorities said.
Officials said the wide-ranging problem has grown tremendously during the coronavirus pandemic. Armed cartel members run massive growing operations, some spanning dozens of greenhouses, that are undermining California's legal marijuana market.
Amid a megadrought across the U.S. West, illegal growers are stealing water, depriving legal users including farmers and homeowners of the increasingly precious resource.
In Oregon, the Illinois Valley Soil and Water Conservation District in Josephine County has held town halls about the issue recently.
“The people of the Illinois Valley are experiencing an existential threat for the first time in local history,” said Christopher Hall, the conservation district’s community organizer.
Asked if Brown was considering deploying the Oregon National Guard, her spokeswoman, Elizabeth Merah, said the Oregon Military Department already has a full-time National Guard service member embedded in each of three law enforcement teams in southern Oregon.
She said the situation would be reexamined next year.
“Because the current growing season is drawing to a close, we are not considering deploying additional resources this year,” Merah said in an email. “The governor remains concerned about the situation and will continue to monitor what resources might be needed for the 2022 growing season.”
Associated Press writer Juliet Williams in San Francisco contributed to this report.