Think Out Loud

Southern Oregon’s illegal cannabis woes draw national coverage

By Julie Sabatier (OPB)
Jan. 24, 2022 10:54 p.m. Updated: Feb. 2, 2022 4:11 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Jan. 25

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

The Oregon Legislature recently dedicated $25 million to combat the proliferation of illegal cannabis farms in Oregon.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

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The complex problem of illegal cannabis in Southern Oregon is the subject of a recent in-depth piece from POLITICO’s federal cannabis policy reporter, Natalie Fertig. Fertig traveled to Cave Junction, Grants Pass and the surrounding area at the end of harvest season last year. She spoke to frustrated and anxious residents and local law enforcement as well as economists, and licensed cannabis growers. We talk with Fertig about what she found.

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

Dave Miller:  We start today with a deep dive into illegal cannabis grows. They are rampant in many parts of Oregon now, especially in southern Oregon. They’re both more common and more flagrant than they have ever been. Politico recently published a story that gets into the economics of these illegal grows, the environmental degradation they create and the fear and intimidation that follow. Natalie Fertig wrote the article. She’s a federal cannabis policy reporter for Politico and she joins us with the details. You traveled to the Illinois Valley outside of Cave Junction to see firsthand what the situation was like there. And you visited a man named Gary Longnecker. Can you describe what you saw when you toured his property?

Natalie Fertig:  So Gary lives in a pretty rural part out of an already rural county - down a dirt road, not a lot of neighbors. When I went to his property he showed me around and we walked the perimeter. I saw four different cannabis grows that he said were unlicensed and I cannot find records for them in the OLCC’s database. So it appears that they are not licensed cannabis growers. He said that there are two more and that some of them had been taken down by the time I got there. I drove down the road as well and saw another that was in the area that they clear out from beneath power lines. So there’s definitely not supposed to be anything down there because that could really impact the power lines in that area. So it was a pretty striking scene for someone who’s been covering cannabis for a couple of years. I’ve never really seen anything like it and I’ve been to Humboldt County.

It was just one set of large hoop houses after another in and around Gary’s property. As we came up to the property line, there was some trash strewn around. He showed me trees that had been chopped down by the neighbors. He told me that he had problems with them coming onto his land defecating. While we were there, harvest was wrapping up so there were not a lot of marijuana plants in the hoop houses and they were kind of partially taken down. But we saw some workers in the distance.

Gary’s partner said that from their interactions with them in the past, they spoke Spanish so she tried to call out to them in spanish. We were standing around for maybe 10 minutes or so and we heard some shots ring out. It didn’t sound like they were shooting at us, but we moved away pretty quickly from the area. And while we were walking away further into the forest on Gary’s property, he told me that that happens regularly that he and a lot of the people that he knows, his neighbor Gordon was also there with us, have been regularly intimidated by the illicit farmers that live right next door to them. So it was a pretty striking situation.

Miller:  In other words they all recognized in those gunshots and in others that happened at different times that these were warning signs to stay away. Don’t snoop, don’t bother us.

Fertig:  Yeah, that was Gary’s take. Obviously we didn’t walk up and check out to see exactly what was going on with the gunshots. We went the other direction. But Gary said this is what they’re trying to do. They saw us up on the edge of the property. “We didn’t cross the property but there’s a lot of us out here. It’s not just me.” They don’t know what’s going on and they would rather [we] just leave. And that’s why they started shooting the guns. That was Gary’s take. That was Gordon’s take.  A couple of the other locals that I was with all had that same interpretation of the gun shots.

Miller:  How safe did you feel over the course of the time when you were reporting this story?

Fertig:  I live in Washington D. C. which a lot of people would not call a completely safe city and I’m pretty comfortable in Washington D. C. But I’m also from rural southwest Washington. So I’m pretty comfortable in rural America as well. And this is one of the least safe [times] I think I’ve ever felt. I was never fully sure if it’s because I personally was actually in danger or just because the intimidation that was going on in the area was boiling over and beginning to intimidate me too.

Miller:  And I get the sense that everybody you were talking to here was telling you that they felt like they were the subjects of intimidation and that it was having an effect. They were feeling scared?

Fertig:  Yes, everyone I talked to was feeling scared. There were a lot of people who never put their names on the record for me for this story because they did not want to be targeted by the cartels that they lived near. Many people drove me around and told me personal stories. I talked to people who owned businesses in the area who did not want to be named, who just wanted to share their experiences. There were a lot of stories about [intimidation].

There were women who had been followed home by a strange car who made them very nervous in a way that it may not have a few years ago before the immense number of cartels skyrocketed in this area. There were stories of people being intimidated on their doorstep. There’s a lot of fights happening over water access.

The cannabis growers obviously need a lot of water in order to grow cannabis and if they’re not legal, then they don’t technically have any legal water rights. So [there were] a lot of the most dramatic stories I heard were about water access where someone’s well ran dry or someone’s river that they used to use water on their property had been diverted. They went out, they undivered it, they brought the water back to their own property and then someone showed up on their doorstep with a gun and said, “don’t do that again ‘’. There was one woman I spoke to who said that her husband had a knife drawn on him. So there were quite a few of these situations where no violence actually took place but there was intimidation that would scare any normal person.

Miller:  You noted that you’ve been reporting on cannabis production in northern California or southern Oregon in the past. Nevertheless, you’ve never seen anything like what you saw around Gary Longnecker’s property. Can you give us a broader sense of the scale of these illegal operations right now? How widespread are they?

Fertig:  Well, I drove around a couple of very different parts of Josephine County with locals. At one point I was an hour away from another place that I drove around and it was the same in both places. It was just cannabis grow after cannabis grow down the street. Much like you might see apple orchards out in your Hood River. Or like corn in Kansas. I’ve never been to Kansas but I can assume. It was just very prolific. Just driving through the county I could smell weed while I was driving around in my car. I’ve been in a lot of places that grow a lot of weed and usually you can’t smell it until you get pretty close to the farm you’re going to visit. And I was just on the highway.

Putting a number to it is hard. Trying to quantify something that is unlicensed, undocumented and completely illegal is always really difficult. Law enforcement estimates that there could be about 1000 [unlicensed growths]. The OLCC told me there could be about 2000 in Josephine and Jackson counties of unlicensed growth. What the true number is may never be fully known but it’s obvious that there are quite a few in the area.

Fertig:  Are there other hotspots around the country for illegal grow operations these days?

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Fertig:  There have been similar problems, as you mentioned, in northern California. Oklahoma has also been hitting some of the same problems because Oklahoma’s model for their medical marijuana program is the most similar to Oregon’s model. It was just sort of let’s make the barrier to entry really, really low and try to welcome anyone we possibly can into the industry. And the unanticipated reaction to that is that there are so many farms, and checking everyone’s license by the state’s database.

With Oregon, you also throw in all of the hemp licenses. That’s another set of licenses that have to be checked by the state database to say ‘yes, this farm is illegal and we can go onto their property. They’re not doing something that is illegal’. In [that] case we would need a warrant and we would need to be able to prove through other means that they are doing something illegal. You know, they say they have a hemp license, we need to prove that they are growing cannabis that has >.3% THC in it, which is what sets cannabis apart from hemp.

Oklahoma has a similar problem. There are so many licenses that it’s hard for law enforcement to tell who’s licensed and who’s not. California has put more resources into law enforcement to fight the problem. So I think they may have also had a bigger problem at first. But it seems at least that they’re making a bigger dent in this at the moment.

One of the biggest problems in southern Oregon, specifically, is that on top of being very rural and having a really good climate to grow cannabis, there isn’t a lot of funding for local law enforcement in Josephine and Jackson counties. For the last couple of decades, the locals in those counties have not approved additional funding for law enforcement in those areas. The reason that a lot of people, whether they’re republican or democrat go to live in places like Josephine County.

Miller:  How much is actually known right now about where this illegally grown cannabis is actually going?

Fertig:  There again, it’s really hard to know for sure. But everyone that I spoke to, both experts and law enforcement say that it’s going to other states in the United States. So places like Pennsylvania where cannabis is still fully illegal for adult use. Places like New York. New York just legalized cannabis for adult use but is not selling it yet. So,  all 8million+ people in New York City who want cannabis still are buying it from somewhere. And even places like Chicago, where cannabis has been legal for a couple of years. But because of the really high taxes and the high regulatory fees - things Oregon doesn’t have on their cannabis - cannabis in Chicago costs a lot in the regulated market. So 60% of the cannabis purchased in Illinois is still coming from the unlicensed market and that has to be grown somewhere.

It’s not all grown indoors in Chicago where lights cost a lot of money and energy costs a lot of money. It’s still cheaper to just grow it outdoors, put up a couple of hoops, throw a little plastic over top and grow it in southern Oregon and northern California and then just truck it around the country.

Miller:  A few months ago on this show, we talked to an agricultural workers advocate about the conditions that some of the people who are working in these operations are facing, some of whom are being forced to work in these operations. I’m curious what you heard about workers over the course of your reporting?

Fertig:  So this is still something that I’m looking into more actually. But it didn’t fully fit into the story that I just published. It seems to warrant a whole other story honestly, because there sounds like there’s a lot going on. Law enforcement told me that the workers at a lot of these illicit farms are often brought in from out of town. Most likely [they are brought in from] out of state or even out of the country.

The sheriff of Josephine County told me that he’s picked up workers on the side of the road who had been abandoned. He mentioned once finding a man in cold Oregon weather without shoes or a coat. They often aren’t speaking English and many, he said, don’t know where they are. I saw some of the living conditions myself from afar as I was walking on Gary Longnecker’s property and around other areas in Josephine County as well. It’s pretty much tents and plywood - really rudimentary structures. And southern Oregon in fall and winter are not a great place. [Not one] where I would want to be without a great structure. That’s a lot of wet and a lot of cold.

There have also been a number of cases where law enforcement has entered these illicit growths because workers were hurt or sick or in some cases had perished. There was a report in December, after I went out, that Josephine County law enforcement found a body buried in a shallow grave. They assume [the deceased] appeared to be from an illicit marijuana growth site and it appeared that he had been shot. So there have been a couple of cases of deaths of some of these workers as well. It’s not a good situation and the question is when it’s an illicit farm, where does OSHA come into this? Right? Where is workman’s comp?

Many of these workers could possibly be undocumented. But there are rights for undocumented workers on licensed agricultural farms in the United States. Oregon is a sanctuary state. So agricultural workers in Oregon have all of the rights of normal workers. But when the farm is completely undocumented, when the farm is unlicensed, who is keeping track of those people and their rights as humans? And I think that’s a big question that no one fully knows how to deal with.

Miller:  What kinds of solutions have you heard from various people who you talked to?

Fertig:  There are two groups of solutions. There’s temporary solutions, none of which would fully fix the problem. And then there’s long term permanent solutions. With temporary solutions, things like more funding for law enforcement.  The Oregon legislature actually passed a bill putting $20 million. $5 million dollars more [was] for water resources, which sounds weird but like I said, you need water to grow cannabis. If you can deal with the water program, you would have a big impact on the ability to grow cannabis in this region. So that’s a short term solution.

I’ve talked to officials in Oregon who say that it would be great if the federal government gave them more money. Obviously there is a much bigger problem than the state of Oregon probably on their own can fix. Think about trying to shut down all of the apple farms in Hood River. You need a lot of law enforcement to go in and do that right? And most of these sheriff’s offices down in Jackson and Josephine County have just a few deputies.

And then another solution though, the long term solutions are either put the whole cat back in the bag - take away legalization - take away hemp. Just go back to the DEA shutting all of these places down, which we know from the last 60 years, never got rid of them fully. [Another longer term solution is to] go to full legalization nationally. No matter how much Oregon makes cannabis legal, if there’s still Illinois and Pennsylvania and New York and other states that are not selling cannabis legally, there will always be a market for illegal cannabis.

Miller:  But the Illinois example that you brought up is an interesting one because there, it is legal. Obviously it’s not legal to take it across state lines but it’s legal nevertheless because of taxes. There is an incentive and there’s a thriving black market including for Oregon grown cannabis. I mean if the federal prohibition were removed and there were federal taxes on cannabis, might that just create the same exact situation we have now where there is still an incentive for black market operators to move in?

Fertig:  Definitely. You actually bring up a really important point because it’s not just federal legalization, it’s also how federal legalization happens. So if there are really high taxes on cannabis federally, that’s going to up the price of cannabis in Oregon.  That might make it more likely that Oregonians start purchasing cannabis. Oregon has one of the highest rates of legal cannabis sales proportionally in the country. I think it’s the highest. Economists I talked to said that about 80-85% of the cannabis sold in Oregon is sold legally.

If taxes are low nationally, that cheap Oregon weed will just go be sold in Illinois and Illinois can’t charge Oregon cannabis businesses three times the amount of taxes. That’s illegal under the constitution. There’s no allowance for that within interstate commerce in the United States. So if cannabis is federally legal, Illinois can charge taxes at point of sale for cannabis purchases, it can charge taxes on cannabis companies that are located in Illinois, but it can’t charge additional taxes on Oregon cannabis companies. So Oregon can grow really cheap weed and ship it around the country, which is actually what Oregon really wants to do. It passed a law a couple of years ago saying as soon as someone else will take our weed, we will export it. But it would still be a decades long process. There are a lot of experts who loosely compare cannabis legalization to the end of alcohol prohibition. And many of them who I’ve talked to point out that moonshiners and bootleggers didn’t disappear the second that the 21st amendment was passed. It took decades in some cases. They’re gone now but they didn’t disappear in the 1930′s.

And there still are some in Appalachia, but for the most part they’re gone because even though there’s some dry counties in Mississippi, you can just drive 45 minutes and get alcohol at a store in the next county over. I mean I’ve seen it. You go out to the Oregon, Idaho border and it’s a great example because there’s Idaho driving four hours to get legal weed in Oregon.

They’re willing to do that drive because they want it for Oregon prices. But they also want it to be tested and regulated and they want to know what’s in there. We’ve actually gone out and talked to some of them out there and that is a benefit that they see in having legal weed. But if Oregon’s weed was way more expensive than what people in Idaho could buy on the streets of Boise, they wouldn’t be doing that.

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