Marijuana is lifted from an illegal grow site in the Applegate Valley this summer. Archive Photo - Jamie Lusch

SOMMER of Success

Ateam formed to fight suspected drug cartels growing marijuana in Southern Oregon forests removed 125,787 pot plants with an estimated value of more than $283 million this summer, according to a final tally publicly released Saturday by team organizers.

The Southern Oregon Multi-Agency Marijuana Eradication and Reclamation team, or SOMMER — which covers Jackson, Josephine, Coos, Curry, Douglas, Klamath and Lake counties — yanked nearly 70 percent of the total number of plants destroyed in Oregon this year, a report of the team's first year said.

"This was definitely a success," Jackson County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Andrea Carlson said.

The efforts of SOMMER cost about $600,000, and federal funding will cover the bulk of that, said Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters.

"We had a great team put together by these seven counties," he said.

"When everybody is working together, rowing in the same direction, you're going to be successful."

In addition to the large number of plants seized and destroyed at 31 large marijuana-growing sites on public lands this summer, the team arrested 23 people, most of them in Josephine County. Prosecutors said all those suspects will face federal charges. Ongoing investigations have identified other suspects who aren't in custody yet, Carlson said.

Jackson County Sheriff's deputies shot and killed a 20-year-old Mexican man, Itali Arellano-Vargas, on Aug. 11 in a marijuana garden on remote Bureau of Land Management property in the Salt Creek area of northern Jackson County.

Investigators suspect most of the marijuana grows removed by SOMMER were guarded by members of Hispanic drug-trafficking organizations. Mexican drug-trafficking organizations dominate illegal drug wholesaling in the United States, reported the 2010 National Drug Threat Assessment released in February by the Department of Justice's National Drug Intelligence Center.

Two Curry County sites raided by SOMMER this year were tended by Hmong groups, officials reported. The National Drug Threat Assessment notes that Asian drug-trafficking organizations have expanded their influence nationally in recent years, primarily dealing in Ecstasy and high-potency marijuana usually smuggled in from Canada. Since 2005, however, a decrease in the amount of marijuana seized at the U.S.-Canada border points to these Asian groups establishing marijuana grows in the United States to cut smuggling risks and costs, the federal assessment said.

In this region, Hmong groups grow marijuana in Del Norte and Curry counties, but haven't spread eastward, Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters said.

Of the marijuana-growing sites found this summer in the seven counties covered by SOMMER, seven were in Jackson County, 21 were in Josephine County and three were in Curry County.

Carlson said all of the participating counties also have independent drug teams that handled their own investigations of small growing operations and out-of-compliance medical marijuana sites.

Winters proposed a multi-agency, regional marijuana-eradication team that could deal with cartel-related pot gardens on the vast public lands of southwestern Oregon. He initially secured a $202,000 federal grant to pay for the SOMMER team, which was launched in July. The collaborators said at the time they hoped to prevent growers from simply moving into a neighboring county when one county cracked down, a phenomenon they had seen in past years.

The team got another infusion of grants in midsummer and additional funding continues to trickle in now as unspent eradication money from other agencies is redistributed by the Oregon Department of Justice, Winters said. He said the federal eradication grants will cover more than half of SOMMER's expenses, and other state and federal sources are being tapped to help pay for the effort.

The seven counties pulled out more than 55,000 pot plants in 2009 and hoped to remove 100,000 this year, Carlson said. The 125,000 plants removed topped that goal and accounted for the majority of the 184,015 plants that the Oregon Department of Justice reported were seized statewide in 2010.

"We definitely got their attention," Winters said of the cartels. "Cartels shouldn't be allowed to operate in Oregon."

While SOMMER's combined effort to find, investigate, remove and clean up big marijuana gardens played a role in netting the high numbers, some credit has to go to the region's weather and overall growing conditions, which are among the state's most conducive for marijuana, Carlson acknowledged.

In addition to the seven southwestern Oregon counties, sheriff's departments from Northern California's Siskiyou and Del Norte counties, the Oregon State Police, Brim Aviation, the Oregon National Guard, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management helped with this summer's marijuana-eradication effort, SOMMER reported.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 541-776-4485, or e-mail

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