Oregon still struggles with regulating medical marijuana, almost 20 years after it was legalized.

Southern Oregon has seen increasing numbers of illegal cannabis farms.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

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Since legalization in 2014, law enforcement officials say that illegal cannabis growing has skyrocketed. Busts have continued to happen over the years in areas such as Deschutes, Jackson, Josephine and Klamath County.

Authorities say it’s due to the demand for marijuana in parts of the U.S. where it remains illegal.

Lt. Brandon Boice of the Oregon State Police told OPB’s “Think Out Loud” that southern Oregon grows high-grade marijuana that is some of the best in the country, making it a “cash crop” for those wanting to sell outside the state, contributing to this growing trend.

“The profit margin is substantial,” he says. “It’s the epitome of being a cash cow.”

Some of these illegal farms are grown on legally leased and rented land under the front that these groups are growing hemp.

Klamath County Sheriff Chris Kaber says some landowners in his county are unaware, while others aren’t.

“Most of the landowners have to know what’s going on is illegal,” Kaber said. “How can you not know when someone puts up 50 greenhouses?”

Kaber said landowners allowing these operations to run believe it is worth the risk, but these farms affect more than just landowners if they’re caught, they also affect the land itself.

When these illegal growings go without appropriate permits and regulations, they can have detrimental effects on local water supply. Farmers in Klamath county are already under strict scrutiny due to a drought in the area, but these cannabis farms have only made it worse.

“An average marijuana plant may use a gallon of water a day itself when you got hundreds of thousands of those plants,” Kaber said, “you can see that groundwater is depleted.”

Community members who use private wells have also been affected, says Kaber. Many using wells rely on groundwater for bathing and drinking, but this gets disrupted when water is depleted.

Boice says there is only so much local and state-wide authorities can do with the amount of labor that goes into an investigation of an illegal grow operation.

“We barely touch 15 to 20%, that includes all law enforcement groups.”

Note: The transcript below was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: Oregonians voted to legalize the production and sale of cannabis in 2014. Probably nobody at the time thought it would mean the end of illegal grow operations. Black market tradition goes back decades, especially in southern Oregon. But still, seven years later, the scale of illegal grows is eye-popping. Law enforcement agencies keep announcing massive busts in places like Jackson, Josephine, Deschutes, and Klamath counties -- 2,800 pounds one day, 5,000 pounds a few days later. They say they’re still nowhere close to shutting all of them down.

Meanwhile, the environmental impacts, especially major water diversions during a region-wide drought, are getting more severe. For more on what’s happening right now, I’m joined by Chris Kaber, the Klamath County Sheriff and Brandon Boice, lieutenant with the Oregon State Police’s drug enforcement section.

Can you give us a sense for the scale of the problem in terms of illegal cannabis grow operations that you’re seeing just in Klamath county right now?

Chris Kaber: Klamath County is a huge county in eastern Oregon. We typically have dry, high desert areas. It’s not the optimum for growing marijuana, but we’ve seen, in the last couple of years, a huge increase in the number and size and in the just blatant growing of marijuana illegally for transport to other states. We look at it as an organized crime issue. We tried to hit it pretty hard a couple of years ago. We had to back off a little bit due to some funding issues, but when we took it back up this year, it had increased 10-fold in just a couple of years.

Miller: So overall, how does what you’re seeing now compare to before 2014 when Oregon voters legalized the production and sale of recreational cannabis?

Kaber: Well, like I just mentioned, right now, it’s so out in the open. It’s kind of in-your-face. When they start leasing property or bank property and growing huge multiple rows and rows, 10-acres worth sometimes, of greenhouses that are out so that you can see it. You mentioned earlier the theft of water. That’s another huge issue for us in the drought season. And some of the water issues we’ve had as well.

Miller: I want to turn back to that in just a minute. It is something we talked about a lot for important reasons over the last couple months. Brandon Boice, maybe you can help us understand the economics here. Why is it that there are still so many black-market operations when you can do this legally at the state level?

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Brandon Boice: I think the demand for southern Oregon marijuana, high-grade marijuana, some of the best-produced marijuana in the country next to northern California, is right here in southern Oregon. The demand and the price point that you can get southern Oregon marijuana, that you can sell it for on the black market in states where it’s not legal or the demand is still extremely high. Some of our biggest destination-exportation states [are] Texas, New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, Missouri, North Carolina, Illinois, and Indiana. It can be as much as $4,500 per pound to $4,000 per pound or as low as $2,500 per pound. The profit margin is substantial. It’s the epitome of a cash cow as far as marijuana being a cash crop.

Miller: Did you see this coming? In 2014, would you have assumed that there would still be this much, maybe more, black market operations than there were pre-recreational legalization.

Boice: 100%. In my experience being with OSP (Oregon State Police) for 21 years, I was a drug enforcement detective when Oregon medical marijuana was the guise that the criminal element was using to mass produce marijuana in the name of “medical purposes.” And it created a mass overproduction issue. So when recreational marijuana was legalized in Oregon, it really was double what the over-production issues were with OMMP and the development of the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program. So I don’t want to say, “I told you so,” but you can say I did see it coming. Yes.

Miller: Do you think that this was bound to happen or, after what you saw with the medical program, could there have been a way to craft the regulation of recreational grows that would have somehow prevented at least some of this?

Boice: I do yes. And I don’t want to speak out of turn, but I believe that it could have been implemented with more consideration for law enforcement. The challenges we were going to face.

Miller What’s one example?

Boice: Well, just the sheer amount of permits that were issued. There was a time when they were halted, stopped, frozen. However, with just all of the permitted recreational grows, there was no way to enforce OLCC ODA (Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commision, Oregon Department of Agriculture) with all that. They were just overwhelmed with the volume of permits being issued and there was no way to regulate that which lent itself to criminal illicit marijuana production.

Miller: Chris Kaber, you told the Herald, a newspaper in Klamath Falls, recently that some of these illegal grows are happening on land leased by local landowners to people who tell them, “Hey, I want to grow hemp (meaning a cannabis plant with little to no THC in it and is now federally legal). I want to do that on your land.” But it makes me wonder how many of these landowners who say yes to this actually know what’s going on.

Kaber: I think there’s probably a few of them that are actually duped and actually believe that they’re not doing anything illegal to lease their land to someone that comes in and tells them that they’re going to grow hemp legally, that they’re going to take care of all the permits, that they’re going to do it right. I think there’s probably some that are duped that way. So I think we need to do a better job of putting that information out to make sure that they’re not [being] taken advantage of in that way. But I also believe that most of the landowners have to know that what’s going on is illegal. It’s such a large scale.

We came across one landowner that believed it was gonna be legal at the beginning, but during the middle of the season, he realized, no, this is a full-blown illegal marijuana grow and he didn’t know how to get out of it at that point. He felt like he was just as culpable as anybody else. So he didn’t say anything. We took the grow down and he was very helpful in that, finally. But I don’t know how you could not know when someone puts up 50 greenhouses on your property that they leased for $5,000 and then wanted access to your well to get all the water. I think that most landowners know that it’s illegal. They just figure, like everybody else, it’s worth the risk because the penalties just aren’t that great.

Miller: What are the penalties for the landowners if we’re talking here about some kind of lease operation?

Kaber: It’s very difficult to prove that they’re involved. What they run the risk of once we get our criminal seizure laws squared away a little bit is they’re putting themselves out there to have their property seized because it is being used for organized crime purposes and it is a way for them to produce it. They can’t grow marijuana unless they have the soil to do that.

Miller: When you say “organized crime’', can you give us a sense for the groups that, based on the busts you’ve done, who you think are behind the majority of these grows?

Kaber: We hear everything from Mexican cartels to any number of ideas [about] what people think they are. That’s not necessarily what we’re running into. I call it organized crime because by definition in the state of Oregon, organized crime is [anytime] two or more people engage in criminal activity where it’s a significant source of their income, and cannabis or controlled substance distribution is part of that. Also, I like to say it’s organized [crime] because many of these large grows are leased or purchased or taken care of through one particular person that may own or lease 10 different pieces of property and then they can move their workers from one piece to the other. If you’re running 10 illegal marijuana grows and one or two of them get taken down by law enforcement, you’re still making millions of dollars in that season. So it’s just the cost of doing business for them. So it is organized.

Miller: Brandon Boice, what can you tell us about the people behind these operations?

Boice: In southern Oregon, at least on the Josephine and Jackson County side, we are seeing a substantial cartel presence for these individuals that Sheriff Kaber referenced. Homeowners are being approached by individuals representing the cartels and they offer cash upfront at the beginning of the grow season. And my experience, not exclusively, but with our team, these fairly innocent homeowners see cash payment upfront. They’re promised a second payment at the end of the harvest. And most of the time they do enquire, at least they expressed to us after we serve a search warrant, they’d like to see proof that this is hemp because obviously, the individuals from the cartel are saying that they’re just growing hemp. They asked for proof and they’re not provided proof, ever. And then eventually, the harvest comes and they’re not paid another cash installment. So now the property owners are left with a tremendous mess that they’re responsible for cleaning up or possibly, having their land forfeited through the criminal process or civil process as Sheriff Kaber mentioned. It’s not exclusively cartels. There’s all sorts of nationalities, Asian descent, caucasian, that are involved in organized crime and the criminal element that’s exporting illicit marijuana.

Miller: We’ve been talking a lot here about private property grows, but for decades we’ve also been hearing about grows on public forest land. To what extent is that still happening on far away tracks of federal forest land?

Boice: So that used to be predominant. [There were] illegal grows on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) property up in the woods, very remote. Basically what we’ve done as a state by legalizing marijuana to the degree that we have is we have invited those same criminal elements into our area to manufacture marijuana, but basically opened up our front door for them to do so. So they don’t have to be clandestine in the woods, up logging roads, deep in the forest. Now, we basically allowed these individuals to come into southern Oregon and do it at these pieces of property, rural pieces of property that are owned by these individuals. Again, we’ve already mentioned the way the process goes: offering cash, they might give them a cash settlement upfront or deposit upfront, the promised second one never comes. So what we’ve done is now invited these criminal elements into our area to do this without having to be clandestine. They can do it right out in the open because it’s legal.

Miller: Chris Kaber, let’s now turn to the environmental impacts of these operations. What are you hearing from farmers or what are you seeing with your own eyes?

Kaber: You may be aware that in Klamath County, a large portion of our farmers were not allowed to use the water that was set aside normally for their irrigation purposes this year. Our major canal system was dry all year. They weren’t able to access any of that groundwater and at the same time, we’ve had marijuana growth which is using that groundwater at huge amounts per day. I mean an average marijuana plant may use a gallon of water a day itself. So when you’ve got hundreds of thousands of those, you can do the math and you can see that that groundwater is being depleted. We’ve had many citizens in our county that have had their private wells run dry. These are the same reservoirs of water that they share for running their bath or drinking or watering their lawn, but that water is gone, in part because of the drought of course, but also because other people are using it for illegal purposes. So we look at the theft of water as just as damaging to our entire county, to the peacefulness in our county, as anything else.

Miller: And Brandon Boice, do you have a guess right now, or a guesstimate, for the percentage of illegal grows you’re even able to crack down on?

Boice: Just based on resources and how time-consuming and labor-intensive an illegal marijuana investigation is, I’d say we barely touched 15 to 20% and that includes all of the law enforcement groups from Joe [Josephine] to Douglas to Jackson to Klamath County, unfortunately. And that number may be high.


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