Pot busts in Southern Oregon exceed $2.7 billion

  • In US
  • 2022-01-23 00:34:00Z
  • By Mail Tribune, Medford, Ore.

Jan. 22-Police in four Southern Oregon counties found illegal marijuana with an estimated black market value of $2.78 billion in 2021 - a figure that reveals the daunting scale of organized criminal activity in the region.

Raids uncovered 1,793,029 marijuana plants and 988,768 pounds of processed marijuana, according to data compiled by the Mail Tribune from the Oregon State Police and sheriff's offices and police departments in Jackson, Josephine, Klamath and Douglas counties.

As a general rule of thumb, one plant can yield at least one pound of processed marijuana, and one pound can bring at least $1,000 when sold on the black market in states where marijuana is illegal. Recreational and medical marijuana are legal in Oregon.

The $2.78 billion in illegal marijuana found in Southern Oregon dwarfs the nearly $1.2 billion in legal marijuana sold at shops in the entire state in 2021.

The $2.78 billion figure doesn't include all the illegal marijuana found because complete statistics weren't available from every law enforcement agency.

The number also captures only illegal marijuana that was discovered. Police believe they found a fraction of the illegal marijuana growing in fields, forests, greenhouses and buildings across Southern Oregon, plus the processed marijuana hidden everywhere from warehouses to potato storage sheds.

Jackson County Commissioner Dave Dotterrer, who has gone out with Jackson County Sheriff's Office deputies to see the scale of the problem, said he fears the impact drug cartels and illegal activity could have on the area.

"It is absolutely massive. It is in fact a cancer in our community. The problem is we don't know how much this cancer has metastasized," Dotterrer said. "What does that do to a community when you have it on this massive scale?"

Sheriff's offices found at least 315 guns in Jackson and Josephine counties during marijuana busts.

In Jackson County alone, investigators discovered enough fentanyl to kill 16,000 people, the Jackson County Sheriff's Office said.

Drug dealers have been adding powerful fentanyl to drugs like heroin, meth and counterfeit pain pills, fueling a drug overdose wave that killed more than 100,000 people in America during a 12-month period that ended in April 2021, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Jackson County Sheriff's Office said raids revealed 134 pounds of butane honey oil - a substance extracted from cannabis through a highly volatile process that started numerous fires in the county in 2021.

Black market value

Estimating the black market value of illegal marijuana is difficult, said Douglas County Sheriff's Office Lt. Rick McArthur, a member of the Douglas Interagency Narcotics Team.

"Some say we overvalue the drugs we seize in order to grab headlines," he said. "I've never been one in search of headlines, quite the opposite actually."

With strong legal and illegal marijuana markets on the West Coast, people who sell black market marijuana here are likely to get $400-$1,000 per processed pound, McArthur said.

He said no one in their right mind would sell their black market marijuana on the West Coast.

"None of these criminal organizations that are growing illegally are doing it with the intent of selling it locally. They are all doing it with the intention of selling it in places with a higher profit margin," McArthur said. "Most, if not all, are transporting the marijuana to various locations back east and selling it there."

There they can get a minimum of $1,000 per pound. They commonly get $2,500 per pound, but prices can go as high as $3,500 per pound, he said.

McArthur said the sheer volume of marijuana produced on the West Coast in 2021 may have caused black market prices to drop everywhere, even in eastern states.

He said one marijuana plant can produce a minimum of one pound of processed marijuana per growing cycle.

For its analysis, the Mail Tribune chose to use a moderate black market valuation of $1,000 per pound and $1,000 per marijuana plant.

During 2021 busts, the Douglas Interagency Narcotics Team found 351,335 marijuana plants and 68,674 pounds of processed marijuana.

That amount is worth an estimated $420 million on the black market.

The scale of many grows show they are not the work of amateurs hoping to make a little cash, police say.

An October 2021 raid at one illegal marijuana operation near Canyonville in Douglas County revealed 100 hoop-style greenhouses, 66,000 marijuana plants and more than 11,000 pounds of processed marijuana.

Temporary greenhouses made of plastic piping and plastic sheets blossomed in unprecedented numbers across Southern Oregon in 2021. The large numbers of greenhouses at different sites required organization and financial backing from somewhere. Each site typically employees dozens to hundreds of workers, including immigrants from other countries.

The Douglas Interagency Narcotics Team found only small amounts of cash and guns at sites it raided, McArthur said.

McArthur said he isn't sure why. But he believes criminal organizations gained a foothold early in Jackson and Josephine counties and are storing most of their guns and cash there.

"The criminal organizations have been expanding in all directions, and I believe many of our grows in Douglas County this past year have been what I refer to as satellite grows, or expansions of operations from those counties to our south," McArthur said.

Who is behind the illegal operations?

In Klamath County, the Klamath Basin Interagency Narcotics Team found 120,000 marijuana plants and 350,000 pounds of processed marijuana during 2021 busts.

The marijuana had an estimated black market value of $470 million.

Many of the sites likely got their financial backing and directions from cartels based in Mexico, said BINET Supervisor and Oregon State Police Sgt. Cliff Barden.

"The sites are often coordinated by people who come up from California who are directed and funded from Mexico. They're given money and told to lease land. People in charge of it are very distant from it," he said.

When police raid a site, they usually discover only low-level farmworkers, often from other countries. Occasionally an organizer from California happens to be on site and gets snared by law enforcement for prosecution, Barden said.

But BINET has struggled to hold anyone accountable in Mexico, he said.

"If a person is in another country, prosecution is not impossible. But with the extradition process, it usually has to be a very serious crime for a country to consider extradition," Barden said.

So far, Southern Oregon hasn't seen the kind of cartel-fueled violence that has ravaged communities and states in Mexico and other countries.

Barden said when violence does occur, it's more likely to be perpetrated by people who've come to rob the illegal marijuana operations.

"That's a big concern for us, both the quality-of-life issues for residents and the danger of it becoming as violent as Mexico," he said.

Behind the scenes, immigrant workers may face threats of violent retaliation against their relatives in Mexico if they complain about living and working conditions at illegal sites, or the withholding of wages.

"The cartels will kill their family back in Mexico. They know there is a realistic likelihood that would happen," Barden said.

He said when workers are interviewed by law enforcement, they generally don't complain. They say the living conditions are tough, akin to camping, but they are earning good money.

In December 2021, the Josephine County Sheriff's Office announced the body of a Latino marijuana worker was found buried in a shallow grave in the woods not far from an illegal marijuana grow that had been previously busted. The worker had been shot.

Like other Southern Oregon counties, Klamath County saw illegal marijuana operations on an unprecedented scale in 2021.

In October 2021, firefighters and deputies went to a giant potato storage shed outside Klamath Falls after a neighbor reported smoke. The smoke turned out to be dust kicked up by a car, but first responders saw massive quantities of marijuana through an open door.

The potato shed was filled with marijuana hanging from the ceiling to dry, plus hundreds of 40-gallon trash bags stuffed with dried, processed marijuana.

The Klamath County Sheriff's Office estimated the marijuana had a black market value of more than $100 million.

"I've had to completely readjust my sense of where we are in fighting illegal marijuana production in Klamath," Klamath County Sheriff Chris Kaber told the Herald and News newspaper after seeing the contents of the potato shed. "I didn't think we were this far behind."

The jaw-dropping volume of marijuana found in the potato shed in October 2021 was eclipsed one month later when Oregon State Police announced "an epic amount of illegal, processed marijuana" found in Jackson County in November 2021.

Five industrial-sized warehouses in White City were filled with 500,000 pounds of processed marijuana with an estimated black market value of $500 million, the OSP Southwest Region Drug Enforcement Section team announced.

More than 100 workers were living on site in substandard conditions without running water, OSP said.

In addition to OSP's $500 million bust, the Jackson County Illegal Marijuana Enforcement Team discovered 641,518 marijuana plants, 70,094 pounds of processed marijuana, 158 guns and nearly $2.4 million in cash during 2021 busts. The team includes the Jackson County Sheriff's Office and the Medford Police Department.

The estimated black market value of the team's marijuana finds was $711,612,000, according to Mail Tribune estimates.

The combination of the OSP bust and the team's raids is equal to an estimated $1.2 billion in illegal marijuana discoveries in Jackson County in 2021 - the most among the four counties analyzed by the Mail Tribune.

In 2021 in Josephine County, law enforcement agencies found 680,176 illegal marijuana plants, 157 guns and nearly $1.3 million in cash, according to the Josephine County Sheriff's Office.

The sheriff's office did not provide a figure about how many pounds of illegal processed marijuana were found and destroyed.

The marijuana plants alone had a black market value of $680,176,000, the Mail Tribune estimates.

Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel said the foreign cartels behind many of the operations aren't just from Latin America. He believes drug trafficking organizations from the East Coast of the United States and countries like Bulgaria, Ukraine and China also have operations in Southern Oregon.

Daniel and other Southern Oregon sheriffs say cartels expect that some of their operations will be raided. But the overwhelming number of illegal sites means many will go undetected - yielding billions of dollars in profits.

Fighting back

In December 2021, the Oregon Legislature dedicated $25 million to boost enforcement efforts against illegal marijuana operations in 2022 and to tackle the theft of water for grows.

Oregon Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, said the funding will help Southern Oregon mount a stronger law enforcement response and change criminals' perception of the area.

"The message we've been sending is, 'Come to Southern Oregon and make tens or hundreds of millions of dollars at the expense of the community with no risk for prosecution or punishment.' That's what we're trying to change," Golden said.

He said the infusion of $25 million to bolster enforcement won't be enough. Gaining some measure of control will take years of work and investments.

After decades of medical marijuana being legal in Oregon, state voters legalized recreational marijuana in 2014. The move unleashed a flood of recreational marijuana growing - without the state funding enough enforcement to stamp out illegal grows and protect the fledgling legal industry.

Legal operators must pay taxes and follow a host of safety, security and quality regulations. They have higher costs and earn less selling in the legal market.

Meanwhile, illegal operators who skirt taxes and regulations have lower costs and earn a premium selling on the black market.

Jackson County Sheriff Nate Sickler said illegal operators are responsible for many of the problems impacting the community, including water theft, worker exploitation, intimidation of residents and violent crime.

"The illegal industry casts a pretty big shadow over the legal industry," he said.

Adding to the enforcement challenges in Southern Oregon, in 2018 Congress legalized hemp - marijuana's look-alike, nonintoxicating cousin. Growers can plant vast fields or erect dozens of greenhouses filled with illegal marijuana while pretending to grow hemp.

Marijuana remains illegal at the federal level.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture hasn't had enough manpower or funding to rein in illegal marijuana growers masquerading as hemp growers, although it is getting more resources for this year.

Sickler said illegal marijuana operations have spread out of southwest Oregon. Counties to the north and east of Jackson and Josephine counties are seeing an increase in cartel activity and illegal greenhouses.

Local sheriffs are offering advice about what works and what doesn't to those counties, Sickler said.

He said other states that are considering whether to legalize marijuana have also sought his advice about Oregon's experience with hemp and marijuana. He said legalization without regulation and enforcement is a prescription for criminal activity.

"We are a great example of probably things you shouldn't do. You can learn lessons from how we started this off. We had no regulatory resources. We decided to build it and see what happened," he said.

Golden, the senator in the Oregon Legislature, said suppressing illegal activity won't be easy now that it's firmly rooted in Southern Oregon and spreading across the state.

"We have some pretty dedicated, hardened folks who are not going to easily walk away from the kind of profits that they've been seeing," he said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.


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