On a sunny spring day in Southern Oregon’s Illinois Valley, Mason Walker is showing off rows of neatly planted cannabis.
“We have a permanent trellising system that’s installed almost in a vineyard style,” says Walker, co-owner of East Fork Cultivars. “We put labels up at the end of the rows so people know what they’re looking at, just like you might walk through the pinot noir section of a vineyard.”
On their 33-acre farm, Walker and a team grow an acre of cannabis and nine acres of USDA organic hemp, which is processed for CBD. Both Walker and co-founder Aaron Howard have noticed a rapid increase of cannabis grown in the area in 2021.
“I first came to Southern Oregon in 2008, and a 48-plant garden was huge,” Howard says. “And now, in 2021, there’s 80 acres at 2,000 plants per acre. So, the scale is really hard for me to even wrap my head around, and the impact on the local community is kind of mind-boggling to me.”
Cannabis has been grown in this corner of Oregon for decades. It’s a fixture of the region’s counter-culture past. But residents and public officials agree that this year is different for cannabis agriculture. The farms are bigger and so are the impacts on the surrounding rural communities.
“What I’m learning is that it’s actually people just growing without any license whatsoever under drug trafficking organizations or cartels, and that is overwhelming Southern Oregon right now,” says Rep. Lily Morgan, R-Grants Pass, who represents much of Josephine County in the state Legislature.
Morgan says she’s getting calls from residents, including those who are pro-cannabis, who say water is being stolen, land is being clear-cut up to the property lines for cannabis farms and neighbors are being threatened by growers.
“What’s different this year is it’s much more in your face,” says Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel.
“This year I think we’re seeing more cartel activity,” Daniel says. “... They come from all over the world to here in Josephine County.”
Josephine County had a record eight homicides last year, four of which were connected to the cannabis industry, according to the sheriff.
Hemp became a legal cash crop in Southern Oregon in 2019 after the U.S. Farm Bill passed in 2018. The majority of producers were growing it for the CBD market, but so much hemp was grown it created a glut in the market, according to Mason Walker at East Fork Cultivars.
“The bottom fell out of the market early last year and the commodity prices for hemp agricultural products dropped by 90% in a six-month period following that crash,” Walker says. “So, for hemp farmers it’s really challenging.”
He says that may have caused people to switch from legally growing hemp to illegally growing recreational cannabis. After all, hemp is a cannabis plant but, without the chemicals that get people high. Hemp’s regulation as an agricultural product under the Oregon Department of Agriculture is comparatively lax versus cannabis, which is overseen by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.
Now, three years since the Farm Bill passed, Oregonians are used to seeing huge fields of hemp.
“I think it provides a sort of visual cover for folks that are maybe growing a large amount of illicit cannabis,” Walker says.
There are other reasons Josephine County is a good place to grow illegal cannabis. Law enforcement has historically been underfunded here, which makes it easier to grow an illegal crop, according to Sheriff Daniel.
“We don’t have the law enforcement resources to get all of the grows that are within Josephine County, not even not even tip of the iceberg,” Daniel says.
Now, lawmakers in Salem are taking up the issue with new urgency. On Friday they discussed a bill to increase law enforcement to bust illegal cannabis grows. It would add inspectors at the Oregon Department of Agriculture and give law enforcement maps of licensed grows so they can identify those that are unlicensed. It would even give the governor the authority to call in the National Guard to help inspect industrial hemp operations.
Representative Morgan says most residents don’t resent individuals growing small amounts of cannabis to make a living and feed their families, like has been done in Southern Oregon for decades.
“What they resent is the amount of people from outside the area that come here, destroy the beautiful landscape, that steal the water rights, threaten the neighbors, destroy the property, get their money and leave,” she says.