Black market beware

    File photo / Mail Tribune Marijuana plants were taken out and seized by regional task team in Medford in September 2017.

    A crackdown on black-market cannabis growers will get a significant boost from a $573,000 state grant to the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office.

    “We’re hoping to get rid of the perception that you can do things illegally and get away with it,” Sheriff Nate Sickler said.

    The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission grant is in addition to another three-year federal grant of $250,000 that pays for two deputies tasked with marijuana enforcement.

    The new grant will pay for three detectives, one crime analyst and a half-time prosecutor.

    Senate Bill 1544, passed by the Oregon Legislature this year, created the Illegal Marijuana Enforcement Grant program, designed to help law enforcement agencies better address the problem.

    One of the features of the grant is to give rural counties the resources to investigate black market activity and to show the federal government the state is serious about dealing with illegal grows.

    Already this summer, the sheriff busted a 90-plant site in Gold Hill Sept. 4 and ripped out 3,500 plants near Jacksonville two weeks ago. But during the summer months, deputies respond to many complaints from residents about odors or what they think are illegal grows.

    Sickler said the money will be used to go after legal growers who are producing more than allowed under their license by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission or those permitted under the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program. In addition, illegal grows that affect water agencies will be investigated as well as more complicated money-laundering schemes.

    He said Oregon marijuana has been shipped illegally to 37 different states that police know of.

    Hemp grows that are concealing illegal drug-level cannabis plants will also be investigated.

    “This grant will allow this group of individuals to focus on these issues and hopefully have a significant impact,” Sickler said.

    Deputies will be working closely with Medford police, including the Medford Area Drug and Gang Enforcement Team, and Oregon State Police. By having dedicated people working on illegal grow sites, it should free up law enforcement officers so they can tackle other drug and crime problems in the community.

    Sickler said legal growers also support the effort.

    “They’re happy about thisn too,” he said.

    Meford police Lt. Mike Budreau said that when the law passed legalizing marijuana in the state, it opened a floodgate of problems for police agencies.

    “It was like drinking out of the fire hose on the enforcement side,” he said.

    Marijuana sometimes took a back seat to the scourge of methamphetamine and heroin addiction.

    “We just didn’t have enough personnel to go around,” said Budreau, who was formerly in charge of MADGE.

    He said lawmakers have come to realize the impact on local agencies dealing with thousands of marijuana fields and hundreds of complaints.

    The grant will help law enforcement make a bigger dent investigating crimes related to marijuana, Budreau said.

    “It should deter individuals from getting into the black market side of marijuana,” he said. “The problem is so prolific that we could have a team of 50 cops and keep everybody busy.”

    Julie Denney, spokeswoman for the sheriff, said the program should be fully fleshed out by the next growing season.

    She said a considerable amount of time will be spent determining what grower is compliant with the law and what grower isn’t compliant.

    The funding from the state also will help give rural Oregon more resources to deal with a problem that is right in our backyard.

    “The way the original marijuana law was written there was more enforcement funding to the areas of the state where marijuana is being sold, not where it is produced,” she said.

    Local grower Brent Kenyon, who runs Kenyon and Associates consulting and has worked with legislators on the rules governing cannabis, said he’s been pushing for a budget increase for local law enforcement.

    “The state police were supposed to handle this, but they don’t have enough resources,” he said. “We’re getting the sheriff funded to look for the bad guys but also to support the good guys when someone sneaks onto their properties to steal cannabis.”

    While many growers such as Kenyon have security guards, the current law doesn’t allow firearms on the property. As a result, a strong police presence is crucial, he said.

    “This is going to send a message to black marketeers that this will not be tolerated,” Kenyon said. “This is saying, those bad actors are known and are being caught, and the feds are seeing that we’re taking care of enforcement.”

    Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or Follow him on @reporterdm.

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