Migrant Oregon weed workers face threats amid illegal boom

FILE - Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel stands amid the debris of plastic hoop houses destroyed by law enforcement, used to grow cannabis illegally, near Selma, Ore., on June 16, 2021. Over 100 workers, most or all of them immigrants, were found at the site. Thousands of immigrants have been working on illegal marijuana farms purportedly run by foreign cartels in southern Oregon, living in squalid conditions and sometimes being cheated by their employers. (Shaun Hall/Grants Pass Daily Courier via AP, File)

Thousands of immigrants working on southern Oregon illegal marijuana farms that authorities say are run by foreign cartels are living in squalid conditions and are sometimes being cheated and threatened by their gangland bosses.

The situation has gotten so bad in the largely rural region near the state line with California, amid a violent crime surge and water theft for the growing operations during a severe drought, that Jackson and Douglas counties declared a state of emergency last month.

They requested state funding and other resources, including deployment of the National Guard, to properly enforce cannabis laws.

On Thursday, commissioners in neighboring Josephine County said they are preparing their own emergency declaration. A draft document cites “rampant violations of county codes, state water laws and criminal laws.” They previously wrote a letter to Oregon’s senate president saying the county is experiencing “a tragic surge in narco-slavery.”

A spokeswoman for Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, Elizabeth Merah, has said that there are no immediate plans to deploy the National Guard.

Many of the zone’s illegal marijuana farms operate under the guise of being legal hemp farms, but the crops that they grow have amounts of THC — the component that gives pot its high — far above the legal levels allowed for hemp.

State regulators and local law enforcement officers have been overwhelmed by the amount of industrial-scale growing sites, which they say number in the hundreds and possibly thousands.

There aren’t enough inspectors to test for THC content at each site to determine which ones are legal and which are not, officials have said. Some sites, frequently with armed guards, have refused entry to state inspectors. Police have said they do not have the capacity to raid all the suspicious sites because each raid requires an investigation and search warrants.

And some managers of the illegal operations are refusing to pay workers and have threatened them with violence if they go to the authorities or try to quit, according to law enforcement officials and a group that advocates for the migrant and farm worker rights.

“We’ve had several cases in Josephine County, where they were threatened with guns to their heads, ‘If you guys tell anybody, we’re going to harm your family in Mexico,’ or ‘We’re going to shoot you,’” said Kathy Keesee-Morales, co-director of Unete, an immigrant and farmworker advocacy group based in Medford, Oregon.

Some of workers who say they were cheated have contacted Unete, which has tried to help by calling the pot-farm managers and warning them that they could face complaints filed with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industry if they don’t pay the workers what they are owed, Keesee-Morales said.

“Many times they’ll just pay them because they don’t want any kind of interaction with the state,” Keesee-Morales said.

The number of illegal marijuana farms in the region, which are not part of Oregon’s legal and regulated marijuana system, surged this year, with some even emerging alongside state highways.

They produce tons of marijuana that is sold outside the state. Officials believe the cartels selected southern Oregon because it’s considered part of the the fabled marijuana-growing Emerald Triangle, a zone in which California’s Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties form the major part.

The region produces top-quality weed that is “the microbrew of cannabis,” said state Rep. Lily Morgan, a Republican from the small city of Grants Pass, the county seat of Josephine County.

“You can ask a high dollar around the world for it,” she said.

Local landowners often rent or sell their property to the illegal growers at prices much higher than normal rates. In one case, an owner went to her land to negotiate a lease renewal and discovered that the manager of the illegal marijuana farm was gone — and had left the growing equipment and workers behind.

Morgan said the owner told county officials: “These people have been left, there are workers who have no I.D., they do not speak English, they have no food.”

Oregon’s labor bureau is investigating wage complaints from workers at illegal marijuana farms, said Sonia Ramirez, administrator of the bureau’s wage and hour division.

Workers have had to use holes in the ground for toilets, bathe with makeshift showers, cook in unsanitary kitchens and live in tents and sleep on cots in shipping containers and in marijuana greenhouses, said Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler.

Sickler said his deputies do not arrest the workers on alleged immigration violations and instead hand out cards, in Spanish, provided by Unete that list agencies that provide free services for migrants.

The workers are reluctant to talk to law enforcement officials because they are terrified that cartel enforcers might discover that they have done so and harm them or their relatives living elsewhere, Sickler and Keesee-Morales said.

“There is a fear factor,” the sheriff said. “These individuals know that they could be at risk for talking to the police about several things, including the conditions, the lack of being paid.”

While colder weather now coming to Oregon spells the end of the growing season for many of the marijuana growing sites, indoor illegal operations continue operating through the winter because they are outfitted with heat lamps that allow pot plants to grow.

Sickler doesn’t expect a letup of the criminal activity because a lot of cash is involved, creating a tempting target for robbers.

In raids conducted by Sickler’s deputies on one day in September on two pot farms, officers found $650,000, 7.5 tons of processed marijuana and 20,000 pot plants.

Last month, men with guns tried to rob an illegal marijuana growing site and processing facility in the small Jackson County city of Eagle Point. Three men from Sacramento, California were arrested on charges of robbery, unlawful use of a weapon and assault.

Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel predicted no immediate resolution to the problem of illegal marijuana farms.

“This summer was absolutely out of control,” he said. “We’re anticipating next year being just as bad, if not worse.”

– Andrew Selsky, The Associated Press