Seven years ago, Oregonians were told that by legalizing marijuana and hemp they could solve an array of problems. Pot smokers could come out of the shadows and hemp could take its place as a legitimate crop. Illegal pot growers would be put out of business — or at least forced to register under the state’s auspices.
State officials correctly estimated millions of dollars would come tumbling into the state’s coffers that would go to schools and cover the costs of regulating the crop.
By 2020, legal marijuana sales in Oregon topped $1.1 billion a year, and state tax revenue exceeded $150 million. According to the state Department of Revenue, 40% was earmarked for the state school fund, 20% for mental health, alcoholism and drug services, 15% for the Oregon State Police and 5% for the Oregon Health Authority for drug treatment.
The problem: No one knows how much marijuana is grown and sold illegally, since enforcement of the pot and hemp law has taken a backseat.
Illegal marijuana grows are overtaking some parts of the state. It’s gotten so bad in Jackson County that the commissioners there declared a state of emergency and sent a plea for help to Gov. Kate Brown and legislative leaders. They’ve even asked for the National Guard to be activated.
Neighboring Josephine County faces the same problems. The sheriff there estimated hundreds of illegal pot grows are spread throughout the southwestern Oregon county.
Some legal hemp farms serve as camouflage for illegal marijuana grows. Nearly 50% of the registered hemp farms in Oregon illegally grow marijuana, according to the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission. About 25% of registered hemp farms won’t let state inspectors in.
All of which constitutes an emergency of the highest order. Once pot growers — and hemp growers who cultivate pot illegally on the side — decide to flout the law, all bets are off. They are telling the state of Oregon they don’t care what the law says and are thumbing their noses at the authorities.
And the state is letting them get away with it. Illegal growers steal massive amounts of water and use illegal chemicals, threatening the livelihoods of legal farmers.
To her credit, the governor is making more cannabis law enforcement grants available and told the state police to increase its efforts. The Oregon Department of Agriculture is expanding its hemp program from 4 to 12 staffers.
Every little bit helps, but that’s not nearly enough.
Jackson County commissioners alone say they need six more code enforcement officers; the sheriff’s office needs 34 more staffers, including 18 detectives; and the state Water Resources Department there needs three more staffers just to handle water-theft complaints.
And that’s just one county. Other counties report similar illegal pot problems.
In Klamath County, sheriff’s deputies earlier this month discovered $100 million worth of illegal marijuana filling a 27,000-square-foot potato storage shed. Two other illegal grows were also found.
Oregonians, including growers who follow the law, are being hurt because of the state’s lax regulation of pot and hemp.
Oregon’s leaders have failed the public. They have allowed illegal pot growers to operate at will.
It’s time for the governor and her administration to fix this crisis, which they helped create.
When Oregonians approved the legalization of marijuana and hemp, they were told the state would do a good job of regulating the crops and get rid of illegal growers.
The state at all levels has failed to live up to its part of the bargain. It’s time for the authorities to saddle up and get rid of this problem, which they have allowed to overrun our state.
Editor’s note: This editorial originally appeared in the Capitol Press.