EDITORIAL: Landowners risk consequences from cannabis

·2 min read

Nov. 7—Attention Southern Oregon agricultural property owners: Consider yourself on notice.

It's been common knowledge for some time that Jackson and Josephine counties are the scene of illegal marijuana growing. Some of them are massive operations featuring multiple greenhouses and thousands of plants; others are camouflaged within fields of vegetation masquerading as licensed hemp farms. There also are plenty of legal, licensed growers producing recreational marijuana for the regulated Oregon market.

But because marijuana remains a controlled substance under federal law and is still illegal to possess and consume in many states, it fetches premium prices on the black market.

County authorities, overwhelmed by the illegal operations, have sent notices to property owners with their annual tax bills. The letters warn property owners could face huge fines, or criminal charges in some cases, and even civil forfeiture proceedings that could cost them their land, if they lease to illegal growers.

The Mail Tribune and other news organizations have published multiple stories about rampant illegal growing this season, much of it conducted by foreign cartels employing immigrant laborers under slave-like conditions. Those operations could not exist without land and water, and anyone who leases to them is taking a huge risk.

Fines from the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration for failing to register a farm labor camp can top $100,000. Erecting greenhouses without county permits can cost the property owner — not the tenant — fines of up to $13,000 per structure.

Water theft is another potential liability for property owners. Illegal use of water can result in fines of up to $1,000 a day.

And those are just the civil penalties. Depending on the circumstances, landowners could face criminal prosecution.

When all of this started, after voters legalized recreational marijuana in 2014 and Congress made hemp a legal agricultural crop starting in 2018, it was perhaps understandable that property owners might be deceived by illegal operators who claimed to have all the proper licenses and permissions to cultivate cannabis legally. Now, it's too late for many owners, faced with established plantations on their land. And no one should be leasing land to anyone who claims to be licensed without checking.

Owners can contact the state Agriculture Department, which regulates hemp farming, to find out if their tenants are licensed to grow the non-intoxicating varieties of cannabis. But the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission (formerly the Oregon Liquor Control Commission) will not confirm or deny if an individual is licensed to grow recreational or medical marijuana, according to the Jackson County Sheriff's Office. You can download an image of an official license, and get answers to other questions, by visiting the Sheriff's Office website.

The issue of illegal grows and all the human suffering that goes along with it is not a secret. There is no excuse for property owners pretending not to know what's being done on their land.

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