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Cartels are Changing How They Grow Weed in Order to Outwit Law Enforcement, Police Say

Marijuana plants are loaded up in trucks after being airlifted. (Photo by Steve Osman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

By Hunter Dublin | May 13, 2022

According to law enforcement authorities, foreign drug cartels that set up illicit outdoor marijuana plantations in Oregon last year are adjusting as pressure mounts.

New hurdles emerged when the Legislature's task group convened for the first time to discuss how to address cannabis-related issues. Some of which endanger Oregon's legal, regulated recreational marijuana sector.

The Task Force on Cannabis-Derived Intoxicants and Illegal Cannabis Production has a tough job. They're in charge of figuring out how law enforcement can combat illegal pot farms, changes to state laws that address labor trafficking or water theft by cartels who fund these operations through profits from selling marijuana resin, as well as regulation regarding genetic engineering research involving cannabis plants. All without interfering with whatever rights individuals may have under federal law when it comes to down-firing up their own homegrown remedy.

State Rep. Lily Morgan, a Republican from the southern town of Grants Pass, said that she was surprised by how many problems their request for help had turned into when they met face-to-face last week during an online summit discussing assembly bills and other issues facing lawmakers this year.

The rapid growth of illicit, industrial-sized marijuana plantations is one of the most serious issues.

Hundreds of greenhouses began sprouting up in southern Oregon's Josephine and Jackson counties in early 2021. Some within municipal boundaries, others boldly set up along roads or nestled into rural valleys.

According to investigators, they were not licensed by the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission and are funded by international criminal organizations from Latin America, Europe, and Asia. There were more marijuana plantations than law enforcement officers could handle. Indoor illicit growing facilities have always existed, but criminal groups are increasingly pushing more in that route, allowing them to grow year-round, according to a task force member.

"We're beginning to hear about Josephine County, many operations relocating indoors," said Sgt. Tyler Bechtel of the Oregon State Police. "It makes it all the more difficult to see it from the street, see it from the air, just smell it, and it's not a seasonal problem when you move indoors; it's a year-round problem."

However, Dave Daniel, Josephine County Sheriff, said that he hasn't heard of cartels moving their operations indoors. Instead, they are establishing smaller grow rings throughout the area.

"They appear to diversify and spread their activities to numerous little grows to evade the spotlight," Daniel said. "We anticipated this shift because we have mostly focused on massive growth and smaller ones." It is a sensible business decision for them, but it will delay us back."

The state police have identified dozens of ethnic-based drug trafficking organizations operating between five and 30 marijuana grow sites.

The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission reports that between July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021, 551,000 marijuana plants were confiscated in Jackson County, Josephine County, and central Oregon's Deschutes County. And it was only a small portion of the illegal crop. During the raids, authorities reportedly confiscated about $3.4 million in cash.

"Despite legal avenues for marijuana purchases and sales within Oregon, an illegal marijuana market continues to cause public safety concerns, including marijuana diversion to other states, marijuana sales to underage buyers, illegal cultivation of marijuana on private, state, and federal property, and enrichment of organized criminal operations," the commission stated in a report.

The Task Force was tasked with examining the effects of millions in grants given out by state dollars to three counties dealing with an increase in unlawful marijuana cultivation and distribution operations. The commission said they could not judge effectiveness because it's hard to assess lackluster illegal markets like these.

By December 31, 2022, the Task Force must submit its conclusions to an interim committee of the Legislature.


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