MEDFORD, Ore. — The Jackson County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday declared a state of emergency for the proliferation of unlicensed marijuana operations throughout the county, calling for state and federal help in cracking down on the grows.
In a brief vote Wednesday morning, the commissioners approved Order No. 186-21, "Declaring a Local State of Emergency Within Jackson County Relating to Unlawful Cannabis Activities and Other Matters Related Thereto."
The declaration has been weeks in the making, and county officials scheduled a press conference for 11 a.m. Wednesday morning to cover the specifics of "requests for immediate assistance to the Oregon Governor, House of Representatives, and Senate." Commissioner Dyer, Sheriff Nathan Sickler, and County Watermaster Shavon Haynes were on hand.
With the state of emergency, Jackson County is specifically asking the state for funding that can be used to field more personnel: code enforcement officers, hearing officers, water resources staff, detectives, patrol deputies, law enforcement support staff, and the assignment of additional state water officials.
Like a number of neighboring counties, Jackson County has seen more and more unlicensed grows connected to a considerable black market for marijuana, with the majority of the product believed to be bound for other states in the US where marijuana has not been recreationally legalized.
Jackson County law enforcement raided a pair of large grows at the beginning of September, but the grows dismantled thus far are just the tip of the iceberg. Officials have said that many of the illegal grows attempt to pass themselves off as legal hemp farms, though the numbers are uncertain. Sheriff Sickler estimated that there are roughly 1,000 marijuana and hemp grows in Jackson County, between the legal and illegal operations.
In an overview during Wednesday's press conference, Commissioner Dyer said that Jackson County's ability to enforce laws covering marijuana have been overwhelmed, with officials noting a 59% increase in calls for service related to marijuana, particularly the black market trade.
The County's code enforcement division in particular has been swamped. In the days before the marijuana boom, the time required to investigate complaints was about three weeks. Now the process takes closer to four months More than half of Jackson County's citations for code violations are currently marijuana-related.
Dyer said that the illegal grows bring a host of problems — environmental damage, fire hazards, "narco-slavery" or forced labor, and water theft. Like code violations, water-related complaints have spiked dramatically in recent years, ballooning 700% during a period of widespread and worsening drought.
State aid in combating illegal grows has started to ramp up in recent months. The passage of House Bill 3000 in June was heralded as a big step in helping local law enforcement crack down. Sheriff Sickler said that HB 3000 did law enforcement a favor by requiring state licensure to grow either marijuana or hemp. Unlicensed "hemp" growers were not previously violating the law, making it incredibly difficult to determine if they were growing hemp or marijuana.
Soon after, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission started a campaign to test hemp plants in southern Oregon for THC content, with the intention of sussing out which hemp farms are legitimate. According to the OLCC's report, more than half of the tested hemp grows visited in September proved to have marijuana on-site, with 5% THC or more.
In all, staff from the OLCC and Oregon Department of Agriculture visited 316 registered hemp grow sites in Jackson and Josephine County during the month of September. Of those grows, 114 were positive for high THC content, 98 were negative, and 104 produced no test results because the operators either denied entry, were not at the site, or had previously harvested the plants.
Dyer estimated that while there were upwards of 300 licensed grows within the purview of the OLCC investigation, there are just as many "off the grid" with no licensing whatsoever.