They Grow Pot Illegally, Leave Behind an 'Eyesore'

Oregon Legislature passes bill to make landowners responsible for messy aftermath of illicit grows
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jun 10, 2023 9:00 AM CDT
Oregon's Plan to Crack Down on Illegal Pot: Go After Landowners
Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel stands amid the debris of plastic hoop houses destroyed by law enforcement, used to grow cannabis illegally, near Selma, Oregon, on June 16, 2021.   (Shaun Hall/Grants Pass Daily Courier via AP, File)

Oregon has long been known as a mecca for high-quality marijuana, but that reputation has come with a downside: illegal growers who offer huge amounts of cash to lease or buy land, then leave behind pollution, garbage, and a drained water table. Now, a bill passed by the Oregon Legislature seeks to tackle that by making the landowners themselves responsible for the aftermath. The bill also prohibits the use of rivers or groundwater at the illegal site, as well as criminalizes seizing the identity papers of migrant workers who tend the plants or threatening to report them for deportation, per the AP. Under the bill, local governments are authorized to file a claim of lien against property used for illicit marijuana, if the owner doesn't pay for the cleanup.

A leader of the state's cannabis and alcohol regulatory agency has said 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 product that has slashed prices and profit margins, and there has been huge growth in illegal pot farms operating under the guise of growing hemp, which became legal nationally in 2018. After passing the state Senate and House, House Speaker Dan Rayfield signed the measure Wednesday, over the objections of some Republicans. Democratic Gov. Tina Kotek is expected to sign it next week. "This is just an assault on property rights here in the state of Oregon," GOP Sen. Dennis Linthicum said on the Senate floor.

But Democratic Sen. Jeff Golden said property owners should know something is amiss when they're "approached at the beginning of the growing season with requests to lease their property for tens, sometimes hundreds of [thousands of] dollars for a single year.” Witnesses have described backpacks with thousands of dollars in cash being handed over to landowners and getting numerous offers to buy. "We pay CASH and offer a fast close," says one letter received by a landowner last year, one of three offers they received. Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler told lawmakers that after police raid illegal pot farms, neither landowners nor the suspects make efforts to remove the cheaply built greenhouses (aka "hoop houses"), latrines, and other debris, including plastics and chemicals. "Frankly, it's an eyesore for our community, with no means to deal with it," Sickler said.

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Landowners who've been intimidated and suffered environmental damage from illegal grow sites are applauding the bill. Christopher Hall, who works to engage the public in water stewardship, said the bill shows that Oregon officials understand the problem of large-scale illicit cannabis operations and are committed to solving it. The illicit sites "not only turn streams into gravel roads, but also lead to serious human rights violations and dumping of trash, sewage, chemicals, and other waste into ditches, riparian areas, and streams," he said. The House passed the marijuana bill on a 53-3 vote on May 31; the Senate had previously approved the measure. The bill will now go to Kotek to sign into law, taking immediate effect. "The governor supports cracking down on illegal cannabis operations that have been prevalent in southern Oregon," a Kotek spokesperson says.

(More Oregon stories.)

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