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. (Shaun Hall/Grants Pass Daily Courier via AP, File)

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. (Shaun Hall/Grants Pass Daily Courier via AP, File)

Migrant Oregon weed workers face threats amid illegal boom

The workers say they are living in squalid conditions and are being cheated by their bosses.

  • By ANDREW SELSKY Associated Press
  • Friday, November 5, 2021 6:50am
  • Northwest

By Andrew Selsky / Associated Press

SALEM, Ore. — Thousands of immigrants working on southern Oregon illegal marijuana farms that authorities say are run by foreign cartels are living in squalid conditions and are sometimes being cheated and threatened by their gangland bosses.

The situation has gotten so bad in the largely rural region near the state line with California, amid a violent crime surge and water theft for the growing operations during a severe drought, that Jackson and Douglas counties declared a state of emergency last month.

They requested state funding and other resources, including deployment of the National Guard, to properly enforce cannabis laws.

On Thursday, commissioners in neighboring Josephine County said they are preparing their own emergency declaration. A draft document cites “rampant violations of county codes, state water laws and criminal laws.” They previously wrote a letter to Oregon’s senate president saying the county is experiencing “a tragic surge in narco-slavery.”

A spokeswoman for Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, Elizabeth Merah, has said that there are no immediate plans to deploy the National Guard.

Many of the zone’s illegal marijuana farms operate under the guise of being legal hemp farms, but the crops that they grow have amounts of THC — the component that gives pot its high — far above the legal levels allowed for hemp.

State regulators and local law enforcement officers have been overwhelmed by the amount of industrial-scale growing sites, which they say number in the hundreds and possibly thousands.

There aren’t enough inspectors to test for THC content at each site to determine which ones are legal and which are not, officials have said. Some sites, frequently with armed guards, have refused entry to state inspectors. Police have said they do not have the capacity to raid all the suspicious sites because each raid requires an investigation and search warrants.

And some managers of the illegal operations are refusing to pay workers and have threatened them with violence if they go to the authorities or try to quit, according to law enforcement officials and a group that advocates for the migrant and farm worker rights.

“We’ve had several cases in Josephine County, where they were threatened with guns to their heads, ‘If you guys tell anybody, we’re going to harm your family in Mexico,’ or ‘We’re going to shoot you,’” said Kathy Keesee-Morales, co-director of Unete, an immigrant and farmworker advocacy group based in Medford, Oregon.

Some of workers who say they were cheated have contacted Unete, which has tried to help by calling the pot-farm managers and warning them that they could face complaints filed with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industry if they don’t pay the workers what they are owed, Keesee-Morales said.

“Many times they’ll just pay them because they don’t want any kind of interaction with the state,” Keesee-Morales said.

The number of illegal marijuana farms in the region, which are not part of Oregon’s legal and regulated marijuana system, surged this year, with some even emerging alongside state highways.

They produce tons of marijuana that is sold outside the state. Officials believe the cartels selected southern Oregon because it’s considered part of the the fabled marijuana-growing Emerald Triangle, a zone in which California’s Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties form the major part.

The region produces top-quality weed that is “the microbrew of cannabis,” said state Rep. Lily Morgan, a Republican from the small city of Grants Pass, the county seat of Josephine County.

“You can ask a high dollar around the world for it,” she said.

Local landowners often rent or sell their property to the illegal growers at prices much higher than normal rates. In one case, an owner went to her land to negotiate a lease renewal and discovered that the manager of the illegal marijuana farm was gone — and had left the growing equipment and workers behind.

Morgan said the owner told county officials: “These people have been left, there are workers who have no I.D., they do not speak English, they have no food.”

Oregon’s labor bureau is investigating wage complaints from workers at illegal marijuana farms, said Sonia Ramirez, administrator of the bureau’s wage and hour division.

Workers have had to use holes in the ground for toilets, bathe with makeshift showers, cook in unsanitary kitchens and live in tents and sleep on cots in shipping containers and in marijuana greenhouses, said Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler.

Sickler said his deputies do not arrest the workers on alleged immigration violations and instead hand out cards, in Spanish, provided by Unete that list agencies that provide free services for migrants.

The workers are reluctant to talk to law enforcement officials because they are terrified that cartel enforcers might discover that they have done so and harm them or their relatives living elsewhere, Sickler and Keesee-Morales said.

“There is a fear factor,” the sheriff said. “These individuals know that they could be at risk for talking to the police about several things, including the conditions, the lack of being paid.”

While colder weather now coming to Oregon spells the end of the growing season for many of the marijuana growing sites, indoor illegal operations continue operating through the winter because they are outfitted with heat lamps that allow pot plants to grow.

Sickler doesn’t expect a letup of the criminal activity because a lot of cash is involved, creating a tempting target for robbers.

In raids conducted by Sickler’s deputies on one day in September on two pot farms, officers found $650,000, 7.5 tons of processed marijuana and 20,000 pot plants.

Last month, men with guns tried to rob an illegal marijuana growing site and processing facility in the small Jackson County city of Eagle Point. Three men from Sacramento, California were arrested on charges of robbery, unlawful use of a weapon and assault.

Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel predicted no immediate resolution to the problem of illegal marijuana farms.

“This summer was absolutely out of control,” he said. “We’re anticipating next year being just as bad, if not worse.”

Talk to us

More in Northwest

NO CAPTION. Logo to accompany news of Washington state.
Democrats in Washington state choose Conrad as new leader

The Washington State Democratic Party has chosen Shasti Conrad, the former leader of King County Democrats, as its new chair.

Logo for news use featuring Whidbey Island in Island County, Washington. 220118
Port of Coupeville to make offer on Oak Harbor airport

The Port of Coupeville continues to pursue ownership of the A.J. Eisenberg Airport near Oak Harbor.

FILE - In this Monday, March 23, 2020, file photo, a worker walks near a mural of a Boeing 777 airplane at the company's manufacturing facility in Everett, Wash., north of Seattle. Beginning in 2024, some 737 planes will be built in Everett, the company announced to workers on Monday. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
With 747 out, Boeing to open new 737 Max line at Everett’s Paine Field

Since the last 747 rolled out of the factory, speculation has been rife that Boeing might move some 737 Max production to Everett.

Photo by Karina Andrew/Whidbey News-Times
Former VA-115 member Jack Keegan speaks at a presentation on base commemorating the last crew from NAS Whidbey Island shot down during the Vietnam War.
Whidbey Island air base honors crew lost in Vietnam War

NAS Whidbey Island will host several upcoming events commemorating the end of the Vietnam War.

NO CAPTION. Logo to accompany news of Seattle.
Seattle could broaden anti-discrimination law to add caste

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant wants to add caste to the city’s anti-discrimination policy.

FILE - In this file photo dated Monday, March 11, 2019, rescuers work at the scene of an Ethiopian Airlines plane crash south of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  The number of deaths in major air crashes around the globe fell by more than half in 2019 according to a report released Wednesday Jan. 1, 2020, by the aviation consultancy To70, revealing the worst crash for the year was an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX on March 10 that lost 157 lives. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene, FILE)
US board says Boeing Max likely hit a bird before 2019 crash

U.S. accident investigators disagree with Ethiopian authorities over the cause of a 2019 Boeing 737 Max crash.

CORRECTS DAY TO TUESDAY IN SECOND REFERENCE - This surveillance video image released by the Yakima Police Department shows a suspect sought in a shooting at a convenience store in Yakima, Wash., early on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. At least three people were killed in a random shooting Tuesday, in Yakima, and police are still searching for the suspect. (Yakima Police Department via AP).
Suspect in Yakima triple-killing shot, killed self

A 21-year-old man wanted in the random killing of three people in Yakima early Tuesday shot and killed himself.

Kevin Flynn, right, a meat-cutter with the Marysville Albertsons, hands a leaflet to a shopper during an informational campaign on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022. Flynn was one of about a dozen grocery store workers handing out leaflets to shoppers about the proposed merger between Albertsons and Kroger. (Mike Henneke / The Herald)
WA Supreme Court clears way for Albertsons’ $4 billion dividend

The case was the final obstacle to the dividend after a federal judge in Washington, D.C., rejected similar efforts.

Beard photo in Whidbey Island exhibit hits a snarl

A photography show has come under scrutiny due to an image of a man dressed as a female pirate.

This combination of 2017-2022 photos shows the logos of Facebook, YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat on mobile devices. On Friday, Jan. 6, 2023, Seattle Public Schools filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, suing the tech giants behind TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat, seeking to hold them accountable for the mental health crisis among youth. (AP Photo)
Schools’ lawsuits over social media harm face tough legal road

The Seattle and Kent school districts’ lawsuits claim the tech giants behind TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat target their products at children.

FILE - A Boeing 737 Max jet prepares to land at Boeing Field following a test flight in Seattle, Sept. 30, 2020. Boeing said Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, that it took more than 200 net orders for passenger airplanes in December and finished 2022 with its best year since 2018, which was before two deadly crashes involving its 737 Max jet and a pandemic that choked off demand for new planes. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
Boeing orders rise to 4-year high but still trail Airbus

Boeing took more than 200 net orders for passenger airplanes in December to complete its best year since 2018, but failed again to catch up with Airbus.

FILE - Starbucks employees and supporters react as votes are read during a viewing of their union election on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021, in Buffalo, N.Y. One year after a Starbucks in Buffalo became the first to unionize in decades - touching off a wave of labor actions at other big companies like Amazon and Chipotle - the rush to organize Starbucks stores has slowed. (AP Photo/Joshua Bessex, File)
As Starbucks unionizing slows, some strike, others skeptical

Labor organizers hope this will be the year that Starbucks’ U.S. workers finally negotiate a union contract. But bargaining is at a standstill and thousands of employees are still unconvinced of the union’s value.