A crackdown on black-market marijuana operations in Southern Oregon will shift into high gear next year with more investigators checking tips and tracking leads with local law enforcement.
The Oregon Liquor Control Commission plans to move into a building in the Medford area next February that will house OLCC investigators, along with officers from Oregon State Police, which could include at least three investigators and a supervisor.
"We're going to be looking at all tips on illegal activity," OLCC Director Steve Marks said. "We will be sifting out the bad actors."
OLCC will set aside a portion of its revenues from marijuana taxes to pay for OLCC investigators and OSP teams that will be set up in Medford, Eugene and Portland. OLCC currently has two investigators and two inspectors working this area, but five more inspectors will be brought on board to help check on compliance issues.
The 2017-19 biennial budget for OLCC marijuana operations is $14.3 million and includes 70 positions. The previous budget was $8.3 million for 30 positions.
Marks said the shift to more law enforcement will help the state better align with the Cole memorandum, released by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2013 to guide states that have legalized marijuana. The directive contained a warning from the Obama administration that states must prevent illegal activities such as allowing shipments of marijuana out of state or using a legitimate marijuana operation as a cover for illegal activity.
OLCC has received tips about legal operations that also have put marijuana products into the black market and large grow sites that are not registered with the state. They also work to resolve problems with the seed-to-sale tracking program. Last year, some growers didn't correctly account for the amount of marijuana lost to mold, Marks said.
Legal operators who have spent considerable amounts of money complying with state law support the effort to crack down on illegal marijuana operations, he said.
Last year, Oregon was still developing regulations as growers scrambled to learn how to adhere to the new rules, Marks said.
This season, he said, he hopes to see fewer problems with growers who aren't familiar with the regulations.
"For season two, we expect greater compliance," Marks said.
With the regulatory process now established, state officials will be able to focus more on operations that abuse the rules.
Next year, Marks said, "There is going to be enforcement against those illegal grows."
Brie Malarkey, owner of Breeze Botanicals in Ashland and Gold Hill, said she has four employees who ensure compliance with state regulations for her farm, processing facility and stores.
When she's spending so much time and money on compliance, Malarkey said, it's frustrating to see the number of people selling marijuana on the black market.
"It makes it tough when you see people getting away with selling stuff on Craigslist," she said.
Many of these online sales are from those growing in their backyards, she said.
"It's still the black market," Malarkey said.
Malarkey said the increased enforcement presence by OLCC is overdue.
"It has been very challenging to get them to respond to us down here in Southern Oregon," she said.