Oregon to crack down on illegal pot growers by holding landowners accountable

Oregon has long been known as the mecca of high-quality marijuana, but that reputation comes with a downside: illegal growers who offer huge sums of money to rent or buy land, then leave behind pollution, garbage and a drained water table.


Now, a bill passed by the Oregon legislature seeks to fix that problem by making landowners themselves responsible for the consequences. The bill also prohibits the use of rivers or groundwater at the illegal site, as well as seizing the identity papers of migrant workers tending the plants or threatening to report them for deportation.


Under the bill, local governments are allowed to file a lien claim against property used for illicit marijuana, if the owner does not pay for the cleanup.


An official with the state’s cannabis and alcohol regulatory agency says southern Oregon is to marijuana what Bordeaux is to wine. But the state faces challenges on two fronts: the regulated industry has a glut of products this has reduced prices and profit margins, and there has been a huge growth in illegal pot farms operating under the guise of growing hemp, which became legal nationwide in 2018.


After passing the Senate and House, House Speaker Dan Rayfield signed the measure on Wednesday, over objections from some Republicans. Democratic Governor Tina Kotek is expected to sign it next week.


“This is just an attack on property rights here in the state of Oregon,” GOP Senator Dennis Linthicum said in the Senate.


But Senator Jeff Golden of Ashland said landlords should know something is wrong when they are “approached early in the growing season with requests to rent their property for dozens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single year”.


Witnesses described backpacks containing thousands of dollars in cash given to landowners and receiving numerous offers to buy.


“We pay CASH and offer quick closing,” says a letter received by a landowner last year, one of three offers.


Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler told lawmakers that after a police raid on illegal pot farms, neither landowners nor suspects are making efforts to remove the cheaply built greenhouses known under the name of “hoop houses”, latrines and other debris, including plastics and chemicals.


“Frankly, it’s a horror for our community, with no way to deal with it,” Sickler said.


About two years ago, the ideal growing conditions began to attract criminal gangs from Mexico, Russia and other countries, police said. Thousands of houses in a circle sprung up and the police were overwhelmed, nailing down only a fraction of the sites. The workers on these farms often live in squalid conditions and use open latrines, and they are sometimes cheated out of their wages.


Due to persistent police raids, which reported more than 100 tons of illegal marijuana statewide last year, grow sites have become smaller and more scattered. For example, on Thursday, Josephine County Sheriff’s Deputies and other officers raided a property in Cave Junction and destroyed approximately 2,000 marijuana plants and 100 pounds of processed marijuana.


Landowners who have been intimidated and suffered environmental damage from illegal grow sites applaud the bill.


“At least most landowners knew what they were doing was wrong. I believe this will help stem the tide,” said Jack Dwyer, who has a home near the Selma community. In 2021, Dwyer said a large nearby illegal grow site siphoned all the water from a creek that runs through his property, causing it to dry up.


Christopher Hall, who works to involve the public in water management, said the bill shows Oregon officials understand the problem of large-scale illicit cannabis operations and are committed to solve it.


Illegal sites “not only turn streams into gravel roads, but also lead to serious human rights abuses and the dumping of waste, sewage, chemicals and other wastes in ditches, riparian areas and streams,” he said.


The Senate approved the measure before GOP senators began a walkout May 3 on Democratic Action on Abortion, Gender-Affirming Care, and Gun Safety. The House passed the marijuana bill by a vote of 53 to 3 on May 31. The bill will now go to Kotek to be signed into law, effective immediately.


“The governor supports the crackdown on illegal cannabis operations plaguing southern Oregon,” said Elisabeth Shepard, spokeswoman for Kotek.