In 2015, when cannabis was legalized by the state of Oregon there were expectations for strong market growth, stiff competition and a windfall of tax revenue flowing into the state. What was unknown, was the effects of that legalization would have on the underground market for growing cannabis.
Southern Oregon is at the northern tip of the so-called ‘Emerald Triangle’, an area spanning into northern California where lush the terrain creates optimal conditions for growing cannabis. Here frustrations and tensions are rising between legal farmers, law enforcement and illegal farms attempting to avoid the new tax laws and regulations.
Currently, there are approximately 2,000 total growing operations in the area leaving law enforcement with a tall task of policing it all. They estimate about 40 illegal farms are being identified and investigated by forces each year.
According to this AP article, the illegal farm operations are popping up like weeds all over the area under the disguise of hemp farms. These farms are created in makeshift fashion – often established without running water, proper worker accommodations and dangerous electrical set-ups – leaving a scarring mess in their wake once they’ve harvested and gone. Despite their scrappy conditions, these operations generate tons of pounds of marijuana worth millions of dollars to be sold in states where cannabis usage is still illegal.
While law enforcement is scrambling to wrangle the unwelcome farms – the pressure is being felt most in the communities operating under the legal guidelines.
Finding workers and budtenders is one problem, according to a farm owner in this AP Article, “The unfair and often illegal labor practices of these illegal operations are compounding that issue by paying workers in cash at significantly higher wages than those of us who … are adhering to all labor laws.”
Water theft has become another huge issue with grow ops using a crude, unsustainable strategies to divert river and creek water to feed their massive operations. This is compounding the ill effects that recent drought seasons have put on crops in southern Oregon.
As tensions grow, law enforcement has made some jaw-dropping busts in recent months that will likely make perpetrators in the area start to think twice. In November 2021 Oregon State Police seized over 500,000 pounds of illegally grown cannabis worth over $500 million dollars. At another operation, 14 people were arrested and 61 makeshift greenhouses were dismantled.
While the good guys are definitely making some progress, there is a long way to go in funding their mission to create a safe, legal market in southern Oregon.