“I and my husband both voted for cannabis legalization. I’m liberal, [an] old hippie type. I don’t want people to go to jail for smoking pot or dealing a little weed.” Rensenbrink said. “But I regret it. At this point, I really regret it.”
People have grown marijuana illegally in southern Oregon for at least half a century. It was easy to conceal illicit activity in private woods and national forests when the nearest human could easily be a few miles away. But there’s nothing hidden about what’s going on now.
The Red Mountain Golf Course, a 24-acre plot of land just outside Grants Pass, the county seat, sold for just over half a million dollars in June 2021. Three months later, Josephine County Sheriffs and Oregon State Troopers raided the former golf course and seized more than 4,000 marijuana plants and arrested two people on charges of felony marijuana manufacture. It wasn’t an isolated incident. Around the same time, law enforcement seized 380 pounds of processed marijuana stuffed in a car abandoned at the scene of a crash. Cops also seized 7,600 marijuana and hemp plants, 5,000 pounds of processed marijuana and $210,000 in cash from two grow operations just outside Cave Junction. Two men were arrested and held for unlawful manufacture of a marijuana item and other charges.
While these eye-popping figures draw headlines, the raids are just a cost of doing business for the cartels, according to law enforcement officials. Many buy or lease six or seven properties, knowing that some might get shut down by the police. Like any smart entrepreneurs, the cartels budget for those losses.
“They know that the resources for law enforcement and our ability to combat this issue [are such that] they can overwhelm us,” Daniel said.
The proliferation of unlicensed cannabis farms is scaring local residents and scarring the landscape. Personal wells have run dry and rivers have been illegally diverted. Piles of trash litter abandoned grow sites. Locals report having knives pulled on them, and growers showing up on their porches with guns to make demands about local water use. Multiple women say they’ve been followed long distances by strange vehicles. Locals regularly end conversations with an ominous warning: “Be careful.”
Debbie, who retired from the Napa County Sheriff’s Department in California, has little faith in Josephine County’s law enforcement. Debbie, who requested her last name not be used for fear of reprisal from the drug dealers, says that officers didn’t show up when ten gun shots whizzed past her husband’s head while he was sitting on the porch, or when the neighbor’s pit bulls chased her from the mailbox back up to her own home. When Debbie reported her neighbors to the sheriff’s department, they asked her to photograph the license plates of the growers next door, but she was spotted taking pictures.
“[The growers] stalked me and chased me all the way down Placer Road,” she said.
The problem has gotten so bad that residents and local officials have called for the Oregon National Guard to be called in. Democratic Gov. Kate Brown hasn’t taken that step yet, but in December she called a special session in which lawmakers approved $25 million to address Oregon’s illicit grows. $20 million of that funding is designated for law enforcement to increase staff and resources, while $5 million is dedicated for oversight of water use and water theft.
Earlier in the year, the legislature passed a bill, sponsored by Republican state Rep. Lily Morgan, that increased penalties for growing cannabis illegally and gave state regulators the authority to investigate hemp growers.
Jackson County Sheriff Nate Sickler says the tougher rules for hemp cultivation and the money lawmakers funneled to local enforcement efforts are an excellent start.
“If we’re able to get our positions funded, I really think we can make a significant impact [on] illegal marijuana,” said Sickler. “Are they going to go away? It’s probably never going to happen.”
The illicit market isn’t just a law enforcement problem, however; it’s actually having an effect on the environmental health of the region.
Chris Hall has spent months surveilling cannabis farms in Josephine County’s Illinois River Valley from the air. The community organizer with the Illinois Valley Soil & Water Conservation District is compiling a map of illicit grows checked against state licensing information.
On a weekday afternoon in November, Hall explored the debris-filled Q Bar X Ranch site, taking photographs for his records. In August, it took about 250 law enforcement officers — called in from state and federal agencies — to raid the ranch. Officials seized 200,000 marijuana plants and found more than 130 workers at the site, according to the Josephine County Sheriff’s department.
At the main site, a new fence with “no trespassing” signs warned off curious visitors. Behind that fence were the ruins of a massive cannabis operation: multiple white hoop houses, now in tatters; ramshackle buildings where workers likely lived; PVC pipes, tarps, buckets, and empty containers of fertilizer and pesticides.