Measure 91, a ballot initiative passed by Oregon voters in 2014, legalized recreational marijuana use throughout the state. Taxes on the legal sale of marijuana in the state are intended to fund schools and police, both of which have suffered as a result of declining timber revenue for a variety of purposes. With over $1.1 billion in sales in 2020, $150 million had been contributed to the state coffers over that period.
Sales of the now legalized marijuana are controlled by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission and restricted to purchase and use by those aged 21 and over. In addition to being able to purchase cannabis, the public is now allowed by Oregon Law to “grow up to four plants at a time, and allowed to give limited amounts of marijuana and marijuana products to individuals over age 21.”
Tax revenue from these sales was expected to generate upwards of an average of $20.5 million to the state’s general fund in “net revenue (after administrative costs)”. With $150 million collected over seven years, the state’s expectations have held true.
Initially, the goal of reducing the amount of illegal marijuana in the state was also met.
In the seven years since, those licensed to grow hemp, a less-potent form of cannabis, have been able to overwhelm law enforcement with illegal marijuana grows. This is particularly true in small, rural towns where police departments have been defunded for decades.
With half of the registered hemp growers in Oregon also found by the Oregon Health Authority to be illegally growing marijuana, and another quarter of the growers refusing inspection, criminal enterprises quickly found that Oregon was prime for their activities. Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel was quoted by the Epoch Times as stating, “Drug traffickers flocked here from every state in the nation and nearly a dozen countries.” Included in the countries represented were China, Russia, Bulgaria, and Argentina.
A single illegal grow can generate upwards of $1 billion per year to those managing the operation. Sheriff Daniel estimates that “there are hundreds of illegal grows in his county alone.” When expanded to include the 36 counties of Oregon, that’s approximately 3,600 illegal marijuana growing locations in the state. That also equates to approximately $36 billion of revenue that is not being taxed by the state, making it pure profit for the operators.
Such a large opportunity has attracted not just those from countries on other continents, but the Mexican cartels, as well.
Long-known for trafficking in human cargo as well as drugs, the Mexican cartels have expanded their reach to Oregon. State Representative Lily Morgan (R) estimates that about 10,000 humans have been trafficked to Josephine County to work these illegal grows. “One day they are in Southern California holding up a sign looking for work and the next day they’re dropped off in Oregon without identification or money and they don’t speak English.”
When these trafficked workers arrive in Oregon, they are often housed in squalid conditions. Sheriff Daniel described serving a search warrant and finding 300 migrant workers locked in a barn. The workers were fed twice daily but had no running water or other facilities. Calling them “narco-slaves,” Sheriff Daniel said the workers refuse assistance from law enforcement as “[t]hey are afraid that the cartels will kill them or their families back home, so they don’t talk.”
When the grow is done and the plants harvested, the workers are often abandoned, left to their own devices still with no identification, no money, and no way to communicate with others who primarily or solely speak English.
Trafficked workers are not the only ones suffering at the hands of the illegal grows, either. With water woes reported throughout the country, marijuana growing operations require an inordinate amount of water which has reduced supplies available for regular residents. Rep. Morgan relayed that one constituent of hers described seeing her personal water well drop 40 feet in level after illegal marijuana crops were planted and maintained near her property. “[H]er well water level had been 35 feet deep for the past 25 years. A neighbor started a grow operation and her water dropped to 75 feet.”
The “quiet life” has also been interrupted to the point of no longer being available in these areas. “People who were living on a quiet rural property suddenly find themselves surrounded on all sides by new landowners conducting industrial operations 24 hours a day seven days a week.” Rep. Morgan went on, “They drive trucks in and out and run generators 24 hours a day. They shoot guns at all hours. They blare music all night.”
Residents who have lived in the area for generations find themselves feeling threatened in trying to keep what they once held dear. They fear for their safety and that of their families. Rep. Morgan described one encounter where a resident complained about the situation and later “found a carload of Guatemalans parked at the end of his driveway to send a message.”
Sheriff Daniel considers the situation a national security issue as, despite partnering with the FBI, DHS, and other law enforcement organizations, his department is overwhelmed.
U.S. Representative Cliff Bentz (R-OR) recently identified the root cause of the issue in calling upon U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to “prioritize and direct more federal resources to local law enforcement” to combat the issue. Rep. Bentz seemed to place the blame on the lack of border security by stating “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.”
In using the labor of these migrants coming across the border illegally, the cartels are harvesting illegal cannabis with major profit and completely disregarding the various forms of chaos they are creating.