Think Out Loud

Oregon lawmakers address illegal cannabis and Afghan refugee resettlement in special session

By Julie Sabatier (OPB)
Dec. 14, 2021 6 a.m. Updated: Dec. 20, 2021 7:43 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Dec. 14

Oregon State Capitol building, May 18, 2021.

Oregon State Capitol building, May 18, 2021.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB


At first, it was just going to be about housing. Then, Oregon lawmakers decided to add some other urgent items to the second special session of 2021. The deal lawmakers reached before the start of the session included $25 million for the state to beef up its policing of illegal cannabis grow operations and $18 million to support the state’s network of resettlement agencies, which are preparing for the arrival of 1,200 Afghan refugees over the next year. We hear from Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel and Matthew Westerbeck, director of refugee services for Catholic Charities of Oregon.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller:  At first it was just going to be about housing. Then Oregon lawmakers decided to add some other pressing items to yesterday’s special legislative session and in the end it all went according to their plan. Lawmakers put more than $200 million dollars towards the state’s rental assistance program. They also allocated money for drought relief, gun violence prevention and homelessness. We’re going to focus now on other programs that got extra money. We’ll start with the $25 million to crack down on illegal cannabis grow operations. Dave Daniel is the Josephine County Sheriff. He joins us once again. Welcome back to Think Out Loud.

Dave Daniel: Thanks Dave, Always a pleasure.

Miller: We talked about this issue not too long ago, but I imagine many of our current listeners missed that particular conversation. Can you just remind us about the broad strokes? How serious is the problem of illegal cannabis grow operations right now in Southern Oregon where you are, and other parts of Oregon as well?

Daniel: Well, it’s very serious, Dave. Very serious, truly.  I just got back from the Oregon State Sheriff’s Association Annual Conference and the issue is really metastasizing as ugly as the word is. It’s no longer just a Josephine-Jackson County issue, which it’s overwhelming down here and it has been for a year. It’s really growing. We’re seeing it move up the valley north towards Multnomah and Douglas Counties has been impacted very strongly towards the end of the season. Marion County. I’m hearing about issues there all the way up into Yamhill and Polk and Lane. The concept and business model behind this illegal marijuana market is just to overwhelm. They come in the form of cartels and that’s not to be any specific race or nationality. The cartels we’re seeing them from all over the world in different areas.

Miller: I saw Mexico, Israel, China and other countries.

Daniel:  Oh yeah, Bulgaria Ukraine, you name it. East Coast mob slash mafia. It’s really an international issue down here in Southern Oregon. We have property owners from every state in the United States, just here simply in Josephine County. And that’s pretty telltale.

Miller: How do your available resources compare to the scale of the problem?

Daniel: Not even close to adequate, very inadequate. We have a small JMET, which is just the marijuana enforcement team. So does Jackson County. And it pales in comparison to the overwhelming growth of what we’ve seen in the illegal market. And keep in mind, I’m not talking about the legal market. This is purely the illegal market and they overwhelm and just don’t really care. They might have 10 properties. We can maybe serve search warrants on maybe two of those 10. And they’re still making millions and millions of dollars, if not billions because it certainly is a billion dollar industry.

Miller: What the Legislature passed yesterday’s $25 million. It’s not going to put money directly in your budget, but it’s a beefed up grant program, money that you intend to apply for, I understand. What could you use that money for if you get it?

Daniel: Well, it would enhance our, our enforcement efforts really is what it would do. And again, like you said, Dave, it is a competitive grant and there’s going to be applications from counties that haven’t applied for this particular grant through the Criminal Justice Commission who is running the grant program. So it will help us. I think we’ll get a piece of it, but I know it’s going to be very much more spread out throughout the state of Oregon due to what we’re seeing.

Miller:  The summary for the cannabis enforcement bill. Note that these illegal grows are causing a humanitarian crisis. This is something we talked about with the farm workers advocate recently. How do you deal with workers at these operations who say that they’ve been trafficked or duped or somehow are being coerced into working there?

Daniel: You hit it right on the head, Dave.  I’ve talked to many different workers who just aren’t getting paid. They’re immigrating to the United States and whether they’re paying off a coyote or muling debt or whether they’re just forced to–through the cartels–just saying, hey, if you don’t come up here, bad things are gonna happen. And so they will come and by and large, in the investigations we’ve conducted, they don’t want to talk, they don’t want to be afraid of immigration status, which we don’t address here in Oregon. It’s really just the criminal act, but we don’t really focus on the workers and we actually treat them as victims of this situation by and large.

Miller: Just briefly, if the money that you’re going to likely get in a grant is not nearly enough to solve this problem, how much money do you think you would need just to tackle this problem in Josephine County alone?

Daniel: We did a work up on that and it’s a good question. We would need probably upwards of about $10 million for the biennium so 5.5 for a year. I know Jackson County looked at it, I think theirs were like 14 million so it pales and that’s got to be permanent funding. That can’t be just every year or every other year biennium. It would take years to properly address this situation. And you brought up the humanitarian issue and I think that’s really what caught the ear of our legislature. That is where we’re seeing the worker conditions and the fatalities and the murders that are taking place behind the scenes. That’s really at an end game.  Now keep in mind, five million of that 25 million go to the water resources division of the state government for the water theft and the environmental impact and then again on top of that, the humanitarian issue really is what piqued the interests of our legislature and our state government.

Miller: Sheriff Daniel, thanks very much.

Daniel:  Absolutely, Any time


Dave Miller: We’re talking right now about some of the programs that got more money in the Oregon Legislature’s special session yesterday. Lawmakers added $18 million Afghan refugees over the next year. Matthew Westerbeck is the Director of Refugee Services for Catholic Charities of Oregon. He joins us now.  It’s good to have you on the show.

Matthew Westerbeck: Hi, Dave, thanks so much for having us on with you.

Miller: Thanks for joining us. How many Afghans have come to Oregon since the US Military withdrawal?

Westerbeck: We started receiving our first families at the beginning of October and across the six agencies that provide refugee resettlement services I believe we’re currently around 250 individuals.

Miller: Do you have a sense for how many more are coming?

Westerbeckeck: Definitely. We are preparing for a total of around 700 to be here in the next couple of months by the middle of February. And what a big part of this aid package was designed to do is to be a crisis response to recognize that in order for Oregon to have the capacity in many different sectors to welcome as many families as possible that the state needed to help provide that capacity and the funding to get there. And we’re absolutely positive that as a service provider network– and a growing service provider network– that by the end of September, we will probably be receiving and welcoming in excess of 1,200 individuals.

Miller: I want to get to the specifics of what this money is going to mean. But first, I know that you’ve been going to the airport to welcome families who are arriving. What are those moments like?

Westerbeck: Community members are invited to the airport frequently as a way to help build the community response and awareness of refugee resettlement and as a way to partake in the community support of it. What I tell people is that it’s always the highlight of any week for us in this work.  All of our teams right now are working very long days, late nights and over the weekends to welcome families and provide services to them and those moments of being a part of knowing that we are helping those families as they take the next step in their life to rebuild their lives and to have the safety that they’re looking for is just incredibly humbling and rewarding and it’s the highlight of the week. It’s what keeps us going.

Miller: That sounds emotional and powerful, but obviously that’s just the beginning of a new life in America. Can you walk us through the different pieces of the funding package for resettlement that the legislature approved yesterday in terms of what they actually mean for people after they’ve arrived?

Westerbeck: Feel free to jump in if I’m kind of taking too much time on this today or too much in the weeds. But there are four really key essential components that we were able to help construct and really want to thank the leadership of Senator Kayse Jama and Representative Khahn Pham in helping us create this package as they recognized that there was going to be a response where the state needed to step in for. And the four components really are beginning with emergency temporary housing that the state is funding for.  Without that we would not be able to welcome the number of individuals and families that we really think we need to and to be a part of this response. The second piece is recognizing that a large majority of these individuals are actually entering the United States with what’s called humanitarian parole. That is really just an entrance into the country and you have to apply for asylum. And that is a process that requires immigration lawyers. It requires going from an immigration judge and having your asylum case heard and decided by the judge.

Miller: That’s actually an important point because it may have been easy to assume that if you arrive here, you’ve already been granted asylum but you’re saying that immigration wise, it’s just the beginning. You have to go through this whole process after you arrive.

Westerbeck:  For these individuals and families that were evacuated in that really fast response out of Afghanistan, there’s a very different process in refugee resettlement where that determination of why you can’t return home is made before you enter the United States. For these individuals we are having them go through that process now because there was no time or systems to do so in that short a couple of weeks when they were all evacuated.

Miller: So part of the money will go towards helping them navigate the legal system after they’ve arrived.

Westerbeck: Yes and make sure that there are enough immigration lawyers and those positions are fully funded. So nobody will have to pay for those services.

Miller: You also asked for a full-time refugee housing coordinator within the Oregon Department of Human Services. Did that come through?

Westerbeck: Yes, that was one of the things that addresses some of the more systemic challenges that we face as a refugee resettlement network in the state including how do we create really sustainable relationships with all the landlords, property managers, property owners, so that we can continue to welcome families here to Oregon as a welcoming state.

Miller: It seems like you’ve got everything you wanted.

Westerbeck: Again, this is where I think the vision and leadership of Senator Jama, Representative Pham, the Governor’s office, all the state agencies, state offices and stakeholders worked well as they convened in a work group. It was a lengthy process. We started meeting at the beginning of September to really wrap our heads around what is exactly needed so that we can have a really comprehensive, robust and humane response to this crisis.

Miller: Matthew Westerbeck, thanks very much for joining us.

Westerbeck: Thanks so much for having us.

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