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MEDFORD, Ore. — While Jackson County officials were declaring a local state of emergency on Wednesday morning, precipitated by the proliferation of unlicensed marijuana grows in southern Oregon, investigators from Jackson County's marijuana task force were in the process of raiding a facility west of Medford suspected of being the very same.
NewsWatch 12 accompanied Jackson County's Illegal Marijuana Enforcement Team (IMET) as they served a search warrant on a suspected illegal marijuana grow and processing site along South Stage Road, southwest of Medford — the culmination of a month-long investigation.
"So the illegal marijuana problem in Jackson County is rather large," said Aaron Lewis, public information officer for the Jackson County Sheriff's Office. "We have an area that is very conducive to growing outdoor marijuana. So it's been very difficult to stay on top of some of the scope of some of the operations here in the Valley. There's a lot of investigative work to identify major players in the game, and from there take down these processing facilities and get some of the illegal marijuana off of the street."
According to the Sheriff's Office, the facility raided on Wednesday had applied for permits to legally grow marijuana, but it never obtained them. Regardless, cannabis plants were everywhere in evidence — planted in rows outside on the property, hanging from netting to dry inside large warehouses, and stacked within columns of identical storage containers.
There were about 35 workers detained inside once investigators had accounted for everyone. Some of the "larger players" were immediately taken into custody, while other workers were detained on-site. NewsWatch 12 saw three people cuffed and apparently taken into custody.
The hope, Lewis explained, is that some of the workers will be willing to talk to investigators and give them intel about other grow operations in the area.
After detaining the workers, officers and detectives from other agencies were called in to process the site. Investigators sifted through the marijuana in various stages of processing, tested samples, then destroyed it.
All told, JCSO said that they found and destroyed 17,522 plants and about 3,900 pounds of processed marijuana.
The IMET taskforce consists of elements from the Sheriff's Office, Medford Police, and the District Attorney's office. Lewis said that they recently received additional funding for nine new members of the team, but the grows are now emerging so rapidly that Lewis does not think the additional staffing will allow them to keep pace.
As a result, Lewis said that IMET prioritizes processing facilities near schools, or operations that pose a potential fire danger, to ensure the safety of people who live in the area. Lewis said that the operations bring other concerns as well.
"Just the illegal aspect of this brings in other crime, you know .... personal property crime, as well as other drugs are brought in," Lewis said. "This is a trafficking problem, so as illegal marijuana leaves the same traffickers are bringing other drugs — you know methamphetamines, heroin, fentanyl, we've had a large problem with fentanyl coming in. So basically they identify these large criminal organizations and just try to process them one at a time here."