Authorities in Oregon have apparently heard local counties’ message loud and clear. After a pair of emergency letters from leaders in the southern counties of Jackson and Douglas back in October, state officials are finally stepping in to bolster the law enforcement resources needed to combat the rampant expansion of illegal cannabis grows.
The Oregon Legislature on Wednesday passed Senate Bill 893, which will devote $25 million to help police, sheriff’s offices and communities crack down on thousands of industrial-scale, bootleg farms. Known as “hoop houses,” the low-quality greenhouses can be found by the dozens in both rural areas and city limits, with owners who claim to be legal hemp farmers. In reality, police say, the growers are illicitly cultivating plants with high levels of THC and selling it on the black market.
“Illegal cannabis operations in southern Oregon have been using our limited water supply, abusing local workers, threatening neighbors and negatively impacting businesses run by legal marijuana growers,” said Sen. Jeff Golden, a Democrat who co-sponsored SB893 along with fellow Democrat, Sen. Peter Courtney.
Oregon’s underground industry, backed by foreign cartels and criminal gangs, generates billions of dollars in annual profits and wreaks havoc on local communities, Golden said. Bootleg farm operators have stolen water during record droughts to keep plants hydrated and have also exploited immigrant workers by making them work long hours in filthy conditions.
Last month, police discovered 500,000 pounds of illegal cannabis products, worth about $500 million, across five separate warehouses in rural Jackson and Josephine counties. While uncovering the bootleg marijuana, authorities claimed to also find over 100 employees, including many undocumented immigrants, and ringleaders armed with guns.
Golden claimed the farms in some rural areas resemble “military-weapons zones” similar to areas typically associated with failed states. He and a pair of other southern Oregon lawmakers said in a letter to Gov. Kate Brown that the non-English-speaking workers on the bootleg farms have been forced to work in conditions “approaching slavery.”
The bill isn’t the only piece of legislation that state authorities plan to enact for combating illegal cannabis grows. Golden said several bills set for the 2022 legislative session, which will begin in late January, could potentially add more funding for crackdowns.