Pot growers take heed

A marijuana enforcement team will be keeping a close eye on growers to make sure they follow the rules. Mail Tribune file photo

Local officials charged with enforcing marijuana laws are warning that the days of little enforcement are over.

Until now, the focus has been on helping growers understand the maze of local and state laws they must navigate.

“We’re no longer holding people’s hands to get through the process,” said Jackson County sheriff’s Deputy David Bartlett.

Officials still want to help growers comply with laws, but those who won’t follow regulations could face prosecution.

Bartlett said the federal government is putting pressure on Oregon to gain control over marijuana. While growing, selling and using marijuana has become legal under certain circumstances in the state, growers are producing more than Oregonians can consume, with much of the overproduction winding up on the national black market.

Local officials have begun a series of meetings at the start of the outdoor growing season in an effort to answer growers’ and neighbors’ questions — and head off conflicts.

The meetings, all scheduled from 6 to 8 p.m., kicked off earlier this week in Rogue River. The next meetings are May 29 at the Talent library, 101 Home St.; June 27 at the Ruch library, 7919 Highway 238; and July 18 at the Eagle Point library, 239 W. Main St.

Southern Oregon is a prime growing region for marijuana, with Jackson and Josephine counties together accounting for 60 percent of the state’s recreational marijuana production, said Jim Hunter, regional manager for the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which regulates recreational marijuana at the state level.

“To say we’re busy is an understatement," Hunter said of OLCC’s efforts to inspect grows.

His office prioritizes problems based on whether they appear to pose a public safety risk, he said.

In the past, Bartlett said, many growers knew there wasn’t much enforcement of regulations.

“It got a little out of control,” he said.

The area now has a new marijuana enforcement team made up of four detectives from the sheriff’s office and the Medford Police Department, a crime analyst and a Jackson County District Attorney’s Office prosecutor. A $543,961 grant launched the enforcement team.

Although the crackdown is beginning, Jackson County Code Enforcement Division Supervisor Alicia Brown said her division’s twin goals are still to help the cannabis industry comply with laws, while also arming neighbors with the information they need to make complaints about illegal activity.

“Most of the things we deal with do have a remedy,” Brown said about issues at marijuana sites.

Cheryl Johnson, a member of the cannabis industry, said it’s in everyone’s interest to weed out the bad players who are giving the industry a bad name and angering neighbors. She said those in the industry who are following the rules are frustrated with those who are not.

“We can’t allow them to hurt our neighbors,” she said.

Johnson said officials have been helping those in the industry understand regulations, which she called confusing and complicated.

“They don’t want to put people in jail,” she said of officials. “They want them to be compliant.”

Conflicts between some growers and neighbors have been triggered by the odor of cannabis, increased traffic, garbage, the sound of greenhouse fans, fights over water and other issues.

Property owners who haven’t used their water rights in five years are at risk of having those rights taken away. Some marijuana growers who want water have taken legal steps to get their neighbors’ water rights canceled, said Shavon Haynes, Oregon Water Resources Department watermaster for the southwest region.

On the positive side, he said cannabis generally uses less water than many other common crops, such as alfalfa.

And many Jackson County residents are making money by leasing their land to growers, Bartlett said.

Meanwhile, the booming popularity of hemp has the potential to pit not only growers against neighbors, but growers against growers.

Marijuana contains tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which produces a high for users. Hemp has little THC but can be high in cannabidiol, or CBD, which is touted for its medicinal properties. Both marijuana and hemp are in the cannabis family.

Some marijuana growers worry hemp plants could cross-pollinate with their high-THC marijuana plants, cutting back on the marijuana plants’ yield and THC content and devaluing their crop.

Some neighbors are upset about hemp, which isn’t subject to the same regulations as THC-bearing marijuana.

Neighbors are seeing large-scale hemp grows, and some grows have popped up next to rural schools. Students have reported headaches and nausea, especially around fall harvest time, when hemp odors are strongest.

“As of right now, we can’t touch it,” Bartlett said.

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

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