Oregon law enforcement is struggling to keep pace with national and international criminal organizations that have infiltrated several illegal marijuana grows in the state.
In Klamath County, two marijuana busts led to the seizure of over $120 million worth of product on its way to the illegal market. Shortly after that, Klamath County Sheriff’s Officers pulled over three U-Haul trucks carrying more than 17,600 pounds of marijuana buds.
Members of the Oregon State Police Basin Interagency Narcotics Enforcement Team (BINET) have no doubt the illegal grows in Klamath County are linked to drug cartels. According to Sergeant Cliff Barden of BINET, as he’s paraphrased in Herald and News, the cartel’s strategy is to overwhelm local agencies and resources with sheer production volume, ensuring that most of the operation goes unnoticed and generates immense profits.
“They are intentionally trying to overwhelm the system,” said Sergeant Barden. “And that is why it is so difficult.”
The Basin Interagency Narcotics Enforcement Team has linked many of the grows in the county to mid-level operations in California, which are several levels removed from the main operation but are coordinated by, and directly linked to, drug cartels in Mexico. The smaller, non-cartel-affiliated entrepreneurs add to the challenge – bandwagon jumpers trying to “join the green gold rush.”
“Almost all of the large grows – with dozens and dozens of greenhouses or even more, especially this year – have all been the exact same type of operations that are all coordinated from out of state, run by some mid-level person connected to Mexico,” Barden said. It’s believed that the cartels send mid-level administrators into Jackson, Josephine, and Klamath counties to make connections with local landowners. Those representatives sometimes buy, but more commonly lease, land for illegal grow sites.
Klamath County District Attorney Eve Costello said that in order to send a clear message her office would be seeking maximum penalties for individuals convicted in illegal marijuana operations – including money laundering.
In July, a Portland man was convicted of money laundering – sending at least $6.4 million of illegal drug proceeds to Mexico through wire transfers from November 2018 to early October 2019. Prosecutors estimate he funneled up to $19 million since 2015. He received an 11-year prison sentence.
Costello counts on Klamath County residents to alert law enforcement to illegal grows as soon as they appear. “If you smell something, say something,” Costello said. “Let us know as soon as the sheds go up, so we can start our investigation now, not later. People don’t realize law enforcement can do something about it.”
According to Barden, persistence and diligence are crucial to winning this fight. “Our short term goal here, locally, is basically to show the organized crime operations that Klamath County is not a place they will be left alone or be safe, and that we will work aggressively to enforce the laws we have so they have a harder time making a profit here,” he noted.
Jackson County has been so overwhelmed they declared a state of emergency to get much-needed resources from the state. Jackson County Commissioner Rick Dyer said Jackson County needs to triple the county’s code enforcement staff – at least 18 county patrol deputies and three more staff members added to the Jackson County watermaster’s office.
A staggering70% of Jackson County’s code enforcement claims are related to the marijuana industry. Jackson County sheriff’s office saw a 59% increase in marijuana-related calls in the past year. Of those calls, water theft is possibly the biggest and most pressing issue, especially during a drought.
“The watermaster has seen a 700% increase in marijuana-related water theft and other water offenses,” Dyer said. “They haven’t been able to respond to half of them because they are so understaffed.”
Additionally, the impact of cartel-related drug operations creates wide-ranging human rights issues – narco slavery, human trafficking, and forced labor in deplorable living conditions.
U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz (R-Ore) called on United States Attorney General Merrick Garland for increased resources. “According to local law enforcement, this industry is based in large part on the miserable suffering of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people coming across the border illegally and then being pressed into indentured servitude by cartels,” he said.
County Commissioner Dyer hopes Klamath and Josephine counties will also declare emergencies, creating a stronger united front against the illegal cannabis growers. “It’s harder to ignore when it’s a regional declaration of an emergency,” he said. “And the more of a united front we present, it will make it harder to ignore. It is a regional problem, and it could be a regional solution.”