Overrun with illegal marijuana, Oregon is eyeing tougher laws

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — In 2014, Oregon voters approved a ballot legalizing recreational marijuana after being told it would eliminate problems caused by “uncontrolled production” of the drug. Instead, illegal marijuana production has exploded.

Oregon lawmakers, having heard complaints from police, legal growers and others, are now looking at tougher laws against outlaw growers. Oregon, one of the first states to legalize recreational marijuana, could be a poignant lesson for other states, including Maryland and Missouri, where voters legalized weed on Nov. 8. That increased the number of states that have approved the recreational use of marijuana to 21.

So far this year, police have seized more than 105 tons (95 metric tons) of illegally grown marijuana in Oregon, according to the Oregon-Idaho High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force. That’s an increase from at least 9 tons (8 tons) in 2019.

Indoor and outdoor crops consume huge amounts of water in drought-stricken areas, pollute the environment and employ migrant workers living in appalling conditions.

A bill for the 2023 Oregon Legislative Session beginning Jan. 17 would double the maximum jail time and fine — to 10 years in prison and $250,000 — for unlawful production of more than 100 plants and possession more than 32 times the legal limits . Personal possession limits in Oregon are 2 ounces (57 grams) of marijuana in a public place and 8 ounces (227 grams) in a home.

The measure also holds people responsible for environmental damage and prohibits the use of water in locations that do not have a permit for growing marijuana. The bill targets migrant workers and makes it a crime for managers of an illegal farm to confiscate a passport or immigration document, threaten to report someone to a government agency for arrest or deportation, or withhold wages without legal justification.

Some parts of Oregon have seen record seizures as police raided plantation after plantation. According to the police, foreign criminal gangs are involved, from Mexico, Russia, China and other countries.

A single October raid turned up 76,930 pounds (35,000 kilograms) of marijuana in Yamhill County, southwest of Portland, the largest weed heist ever recorded in a county more known for its pinot noir wine.

“Investigators found that the entire property had been converted to facilitate the growth, storage, processing and packaging of marijuana to be shipped or transported out of the area,” the sheriff’s office said.

The street sales value of the marijuana in Oregon would be $76 million, while on the East Coast it would be worth $269 million, the sheriff’s office said.

Receipts at the property in rural Newberg, Oregon showed that large amounts of money had been transferred from Oregon to the state of Michoacán in Mexico.

On October 25, Oregon State Police, including SWAT agents, raided a property in southern Oregon’s Jackson County that housed pot in greenhouses. The officers destroyed about 450 kilograms of illegal, processed marijuana and found the carcass of a black bear, firearms and three stolen vehicles.

The amount of illegal marijuana that law enforcement intercepts each year in Oregon is believed to be dwarfed by the countless tons that are smuggled out of the state and sold for huge profits.

The 2014 Oregon voters’ pamphlet stated that legalization of recreational marijuana would “eliminate the problems caused by the prohibition and uncontrolled production, supply and possession of marijuana in this state.”

Anthony Johnson, who was the lead petitioner of Ballot Measure 91, acknowledged that legalization – and the creation of a regulated farm-to-customer industry – has not stopped illegal cultivation.

Since recreational marijuana is still illegal both federally and in many other states, Johnson said the problem won’t go away because of the high profit margin from black market sales in those states.

“I think this will continue to be a problem until the federal government legalizes it across the country,” Johnson said in an interview Tuesday.

However, he said authorities should act against Oregon’s illegal growers.

“Certainly, if unregulated crops steal water or use chemicals that shouldn’t pollute our land, then the state and/or federal government is expected to step in to enforce state law.”

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