In southern Oregon, thousands of immigrant workers on illicit marijuana farms live in poor conditions and are sometimes refused pay. Authorities believe the farms are run by cartels who violate migrant workers’ labor rights and threaten them with violence.
“There is a fear factor,” Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler said in an interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB). “These individuals know that they could be at risk for talking to the police about several things, including the conditions, the lack of being paid.” Sickler also noted that the migrant workers live in tents, sleep in cots in marijuana greenhouses or shipping containers, cook in unsanitary kitchens, bathe in makeshift showers, and use holes in grounds for toilets.
Back in July, police raided an illegal cannabis grow operation near Central Point, Jackson County. Despite the raid’s success, local law enforcement and state regulators have struggled to combat the rise of illegal marijuana cultivation sites in Jackson, Douglas, and Josephine Counties.
These mostly rural counties are overwhelmed with multiple cannabis cultivation sites, and there are not enough resources to inspect or investigate them. Officials say some state inspectors were denied entry to a cultivation site that was armed with guards. Inspectors routinely test and inspect cannabis plants on cultivation sites to determine if they are growing legal hemp.
Officials in Douglas and Jackson Counties declared a state of emergency last month to request funding and other resources. They also requested National Guard deployment to help enforce cannabis laws.
Josephine County officials are preparing a draft to declare a state of emergency, as well. According to OPB, officials mentioned that the county is facing “a tragic surge in narco-slavery” in a letter to Oregon’s senate president.
Despite facing violence, some immigrants working on the illegal marijuana farms reached out to Unete, an immigrant and farmworker advocacy group in Oregon, for further assistance after their pay was withheld. “We’ve had several cases in Josephine County, where they were threatened with guns to their heads, ‘If you guys tell anybody, we’re going to harm your family in Mexico,’ or ‘We’re going to shoot you,'” Unete co-director Kathy Keese-Morales said.
According to Sickler, Unete provides his deputies with cards in Spanish that have a list of free services for migrants. Instead of arresting the migrant workers, Sickler says his deputies give them the cards instead.
Both Sickler and Keese-Morales old OPB that “the migrant workers are reluctant to talk to law enforcement officials because they are terrified that cartel enforcers might discover they have done so and harm them or their relatives living elsewhere.”
A lot of the cannabis grown on these illicit sites are sold in the black market, where they end up being consumed in hand pipes or paper joints by consumers.
The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industry is investigating wage complaints from workers at illegal marijuana farms, administrator of the bureau’s wage and hour division Sonia Ramirez said.