Oregon lawmakers take aim at explosion of illegal pot farms

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)

By Andrew Selsky


Seven years after Oregon voters legalized the regulated production and use of recreational marijuana, the state Legislature is set to consider a raft of measures to crack down on an explosion of illegal pot farms.

Underscoring the industrial-size scale of the illegal marijuana farms, the Rogue Area Drug Enforcement, or RADE, announced this week it seized 52 tons of illegal marijuana last year. That was in southern Oregon alone.

The amount of pot seized was greater than previous years, Grants Pass Police Department Detective Sgt. Doni Hamilton, a member of the RADE team, said in an email.

Many of the growers are claiming to be legal hemp farmers but are instead cultivating plants with illegal amounts of THC, the component that creates the “high,” according to the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission.

“A lot of people have been using hemp as a cover,” OLCC spokesperson Mark Pettinger said in an interview last year.

READ MORE: Legal pot growers frustrated by illegal operations in Oregon

One of the bills put forward for Oregon’s five-week legislative session that began Tuesday aims to financially punish those who are operating under the guise of growing hemp. Industrial hemp was legalized nationally by Congress in the 2018 Farm Bill.

Under a bill sponsored by Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, and Rep. Lily Morgan, R-Grants Pass, a building or other premises used for unlawful growing or handling of hemp would be subjected to lien and could be sold to pay all fines and costs.

Another bill authorizes the Oregon Department of Agriculture to refuse to issue industrial hemp grower licenses, based on supply and demand for the product.

Meanwhile, a bill sponsored by Sen. Tim Knopp, leader of the minority Republicans in the Senate, would have the Oregon State Police establish a unit to assist overwhelmed county sheriffs’ offices in uprooting the illegal pot farms.

The state police would ensure that each county sheriff’s office receives at least $500,000 annually for the offensive on illegal pot growers, with more resources going to sheriffs who demonstrate a greater need. The Oregon Department of Revenue would transfer funds to the state police for these purposes.

READ MORE: Overwhelmed by illegal pot, Oregon county declares emergency

READ MORE: Migrant Oregon weed workers face threats amid illegal boom

During this year’s short legislative session, lawmakers have numerous bills to push through committees and send to both the House and Senate for approval. Many will die along the way in the limited time period, especially those that haven’t been fine-tuned yet, leaders of the majority Democratic caucus said Tuesday.

But Senate President Peter Courtney has said he’s very concerned about the surge in illegal marijuana farms in southern Oregon, and even suggested the Oregon National Guard be sent in to help, and so might favour legislation aimed at tackling the problem.

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