Recreational marijuana is legal in Oregon, of course. But the illegal pot business hasn’t gone away.
In fact, it’s a growth industry.
And we’re not talking about your neighbor growing a few dozen plants in his barn for personal consumption. We’re talking about international criminal gangs using trafficked labor in major marijuana growing operations.
And they’re keeping local drug teams busy.
Deschutes County Detective Dustin Miller walked us through what’s left of a major illegal grow that was busted on July 6, 2022.
“These are designed to go up, be one season and be done,” said Miller. “This is a large operation.”
Just east of the Bend Airport, in a neighborhood of small farms and private homes and hiding in plain sight, they found 25 flimsy greenhouses.
“Counting this large one back here, the large one we found here just had starters and growing materials different things probably for the original stages before they planted the real greenhouses,” said Miller.
The same bust involved another property. Together, more than 6,000 plants were confiscated. Estimated street value: $3.5 million.
“What we have become is the criminal breeding ground for this criminal activity as it’s spread across the states,” said Miller.
And this is just the most recent.
The biggest bust in county history came in September 2021 in Alfalfa. Nine thousand plants and more than a ton of processed pot. Detectives say it was run by a Mexican cartel. The workers were brought into the country illegally, working off debt and living in terrible conditions.
This past April, 2,800 plants were seized. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and more than a dozen firearms.
On June 14, Jefferson County busted a record haul of 17,000 plants and eight tons of processed pot. Another foreign-run operation, this one tied to a cartel in China. Mostly Chinese workers living in the same conditions as the other grows.
“Very little money. Very little food. Very little water. Very little shelter. Essentially no bathrooms,” said Miller. “The filth that they are being forced to live in is not anyplace any of us like to spend an evening much less send a full growing season.”
Grow sites like this are dangerous fire hazards.
“A lot of them are run off extension cords, overloading breakers and circuits, said Miller.
And there are health hazards. The products are completely unregulated.
“We’re seeing hard fertilizers. We’re seeing pesticides and we’re seeing chemicals being placed on these plants and around these greenhouses to deter the rodents that are not intended for human consumption,” said Miller.
It’s happening because there’s money to be made — big money — in illegal marijuana.
“California, Washington, Oregon is known for having some of the best marijuana in the United States,” said Miller.
It’s a classic case of buy low, sell high.
“You can buy bulk — $900 dollars a pound, $1,000 a pound, $1,200 a pound — and you can take it back to the other side of the country and you can triple that,” said Miller.
Or just grow your own and ship it out of state by truck, by the U.S. mail or package delivery services, detectives say.
The state’s hemp industry — often providing camouflage for illegal grows.
“It’s become fairly socially accepted to see large hemp farms being grown,” said Miller. It’s harder for law enforcement to discover them. It’s harder for us to see them, identify them and process them when they are in fact an illegal grow when there are so many of them.”
This metaphorical swamp was supposed to dry up with legalization.
Here’s one of the stated purposes of Ballot Measure 91.
“Prevent revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs, and cartels.”
Statements in support:
“Measure 91 fights back against drug cartels so that they face competition with the regulated market and go out of business.” — Volunteer firefighter and EMT
“We can cut off the unlawful drug trafficking with a smart approach at home.” — Former Supreme Court Justice
“Cut off the black market and send the cartels packing.” — Vote Yes on 91 campaign
“Get rid of violent drug cartel grow operations.” — Council for Retired Citizens
Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson calls that reasoning a farce.
“What we’re seeing is an increase in the cartel operations,” said Nelson.
“The argument that it would get rid of the black market industry, that argument hasn’t held up,” he continued. “We’re not seeing that. As a matter of fact, I believe we’re seeing an increase in the black market industry because marijuana from Oregon has probably by now been found in all 50 states and maybe other countries.”
Nelson is adding personnel to the county’s Illegal Marijuana Market Enforcement Team, hoping to avoid what’s happened in Douglas, Josephine and Jackson counties. Leaders there have declared states of emergency with law enforcement overwhelmed.
It’s led to legislative approval of $25 million in anti-drug funding and prompted a moratorium on licenses for hemp farms.
“They’ve made a dent by having the state of emergency and putting the licenses on a moratorium,” said Miller. “We’re seeing those particular type of grows start to squirt out to the community and they’re squirting out to Klamath County, Lake County, Deschutes County.”
That means more work for local drug teams who could use more resources.
“We probably have 25-30 active cases right now that we’re working on,” said Miller.
So do the math. How many more plants; how many more guns; how many more trafficked workers are out there right now, right here at home?
In most cases, it is tips from suspicious neighbors which lead to investigations and eventual busts. Central Oregon Daily News spoke with neighbors at several Bend-area grow sites and they were willing to talk to us, but not on camera. They admit they’re scared off by that word “cartels” and the serious criminal element involved.