SALEM, Ore. (AP) – Amanda Metzler, a licensed cannabis producer, has tightened security around her property and no longer dares to go out after dark because she is afraid of members of armed cartels who run illegal farms in marijuana in his area – even directly across the street.

Elin Miller, owner of a winery, said the illegal sites have attracted so many workers to the field that grape growers and wineries suffer from labor shortages, especially around harvest time.

Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler said the crime rate, associated with the thousands of illegal marijuana farms that have sprung up this year in southern Oregon, has skyrocketed.

“We have had stabbings, thefts, thefts, burglaries, homicides, sex crimes, motor vehicle crashes, drunk driving, all related to the influx of industry of marijuana and cannabis in our valley, ”Sickler said. “It is certainly a problem that we deal with on a daily basis here. “

The three were among witnesses who testified Tuesday before a committee of the Oregon Legislature, in a bid to seek help in stemming the proliferation of illegal cultivation sites in southern Oregon.

Managers of the sites – which were brazenly erected last spring, primarily in Jackson and Josephine counties in the largely rural region near the California state border – have stolen water from rivers, streams and aquifers during a severe drought and abused immigrant workers, officials said. .

Many illegal marijuana farms operate under the pretext of being legal hemp farms. Steven Marks, director of the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission, said tests carried out at some 400 self-proclaimed hemp sites from July 28 through mid-September showed that most plants contained higher amounts of THC, the component that gives cannabis its high effect, which is legally permitted for hemp.

“So the bottom line is that 54% of all the tests we have done successfully were positive and presumptive for marijuana,” Marks said.

Managers at 73 sites asked state inspectors to leave and denied them access. Many sites are guarded by armed men.

Sickler described “an explosion of growth” on marijuana farms.

“We don’t have the resources in Jackson County to deal with something like this,” Sickler told the Interim House Committee on Economic Recovery and Prosperity.

Representative Pam Marsh, a Democrat from Ashland in Jackson County, agreed.

“I can tell you that on the ground, the ubiquitous presence of these structures, often with very little effort to keep them out of public view, has been shocking,” said Marsh.

There aren’t enough inspectors to test THC content on every site to determine which is legal and which isn’t, officials said. Police said they did not have the capacity to search all suspicious sites, with each search requiring an investigation and a search warrant.

“First and foremost, we need to allocate significant funds to support law enforcement and code compliance operations,” Marsh told the committee. “Jackson County alone has estimated a cost of $ 7.3 million per year to enable the county to adequately tackle illegal cultivation. Josephine County is likely to have a similar need.

Vineyards are also feeling the impact of illegal pot farms, said Miller, president of the Oregon Wine Council.

“We already face challenges in finding enough workers to support our operations, especially during peak harvest seasons,” Miller said. “The unfair and often illegal labor practices of these illegal operations compound this problem by paying workers cash at significantly higher wages than those of us who (…) adhere to all labor laws. “

With tons of newly harvested marijuana and much of the illicit trade in cash, gunmen are now attacking illegal farms and marijuana processing sites.

“Crews from eight different states have come to Jackson County to carry out home invasions on marijuana farms or individuals associated with the marijuana industry with money,” Sickler said.

Representative John Lively, the committee chair, said its members would draft legislation to improve the situation. But he stressed that the next legislative session, which begins in February, is short, lasting just a month, leaving little time for a series of bills to pass committees and both the House. and the Senate.

“And so the more complex the legislation, the more problematic it will be,” Lively said. “So how many issues are we trying to tackle or not tackle in the short session, versus something else?” “

Marsh warned that there would be no quick fix.

“We know that it will take several years of significant effort, maybe three to five before we can hope to fix the problem,” she said.

Illegal farms produce tons of marijuana that are sold out of state. Officials believe foreign cartels selected southern Oregon because it is part of the legendary emerald triangle of marijuana cultivation, an area in which Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties in California form the major part.

Federal drug officers and representatives from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Oregon met with local law enforcement and other officials on Tuesday to learn about the challenges they face.

Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel called it an “early coordination meeting between agencies.”

“We are all affected by the illegal market in so many ways that we need to work together as united as possible,” Daniel said in an email. “The illegal marijuana market has no borders or borders.”

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Follow Andrew Selsky on Twitter at https://twitter.com/andrewselsky



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