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Oregon’s illegal marijuana grows bring crime and destruction to ranchers and farmers

A MANY-HEADED MONSTER:

Illegal marijuana’s devastating impacts on agriculture

By SIERRA DAWN McCLAIN for Capital Press

KLAMATH COUNTY, Ore. — On the drive between his family’s cattle ranch in Sprague River and a grazing allotment in the Black Hills, Jimmy Gallagher pointed out what appeared to be illegal marijuana grows along the road, one of which had recently been raided by law enforcement officers.

“They’re doing their damnedest,” he said of local law enforcement, “but it’s hard because they’re so outnumbered and underfunded.”

Todd Fleisher, Gallagher’s brother-in-law, agreed.

“It’s getting ridiculous,” Fleisher said.

In the Black Hills, Gallagher stopped beside the watering hole where his family’s cattle drink. Last year, Gallagher said, thieves stole water from this spot, using trucks with 500-gallon tanks.

The theft was especially troublesome during last summer’s severe drought.

Gallagher said he’s even more concerned about his family’s safety.

The burgeoning illicit marijuana industry has had devastating impacts on rural Oregon and agriculture. Like a many-headed hydra monster in Greek mythology, illegal marijuana growers have stolen water, polluted the land and water, violated land use laws, driven up farmland prices, caused labor problems and endangered citizens.

Although new state laws and added funding are helping law officers wrangle the monster, farmers and community leaders say more still needs to be done.

How we got here

Eight years ago, Oregon voters passed a ballot measure legalizing recreational marijuana use and its cultivation and sale.

Hemp and marijuana — related cannabis plants — may be grown legally in Oregon by farmers as long as they register with the state Department of Agriculture and other agencies. Growers must pay fees and follow specific rules.

But, as the state quickly discovered, not everyone plays by the rules — especially when it comes to a crop like marijuana, which is far more profitable to grow without a license and sell out-of-state.

Since 2015, the state has been swamped by thousands of unlicensed operations, many of which are run by people claiming to be legal hemp farmers.

Illegal marijuana, according to law enforcement officials, generates billions of dollars in profits and is grown largely by international drug cartels and foreign criminals. Southern Oregon now rivals Northern California’s notorious “Emerald Triangle” for growing illegal marijuana.

During raids in 2021 alone, according to public records, Southern Oregon officials across four counties — Jackson, Douglas, Klamath and Josephine — seized pot exceeding $2.7 billion in value.

Illegal water use

According to public records the Oregon Water Resources Department released to the Capital Press Jan. 25 under the Oregon Public Records Law, there’s been at least a 267% uptick in water theft-related complaints and investigations associated with cannabis during the past three years.

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