Oregon Lawmakers Target Black Market Marijuana By Boosting Beleaguered Law Enforcement Agencies

Photo Credit: Andrew Selsky

Oregon legislators want to bust the state’s marijuana black market by giving money to counties with big illegal pot production and little law enforcement.

In the recently ended legislative session, state lawmakers approved a bill that will dedicate $1.5 million a year to help local authorities crack down on the illegal mari­juana trade.

Rob Bovett, an attorney for the Association of Oregon Counties, said growers of illegal marijuana are producing huge amounts of pot in mostly rural counties with small law enforcement agencies.

Growers often sell marijuana on the black market, including out of state.

“Really, there is nobody there to hold them accountable,” Bovett said of the illegal pot producers.

The state’s Illegal Marijuana Market Enforcement Grant Program is scheduled to last until 2024.

The money is supposed to help law enforcement agencies deal with the daunting problem of black market pot, Bovett said.

Southern Oregon counties that might benefit from the law enforcement money include Josephine, Jackson, Curry, Coos and Douglas.

Bovett said the decline of the timber industry in those counties led to outdoor marijuana cultivation taking root several years ago. Oregon in 2015 legalized the sale of marijuana to adults, but authorities say the illegal pot trade continues to flourish.

Southern Oregon counties are “the banana belt for growing marijuana,” Bovett said.

“Plus, there’s virtually no law enforcement resources to put it in check, so it was just screaming for a solution,” he said.

Bovett worked with lawmakers to craft the law enforcement funding bill ­— Senate Bill 1544 — including­ Sen. Floyd Prozanski, a Eugene Democrat who represents south Lane and north Douglas counties.

The bill awaits the signature of Gov. Kate Brown.

In February, U.S. Attorney Billy Williams convened a summit in Portland about illicit marijuana, drawing state and federal officials from around the West, as well as representatives from the legal marijuana industry.

Williams, whose district covers Oregon, said states must deal with black market marijuana or else the federal government will step up enforcement of federal anti-marijuana laws.

The state enforcement funding is a response to Williams’ demand, Bovett said.

“We have to do something about (black market marijuana) to stave off federal intervention,” Bovett said. “We have to fix our problems.”

The Lane County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t plan to apply for a grant, spokeswoman Carrie Carver said.

Such grants typically supplement existing drug enforcement units, and the county has disbanded its Interagency Narcotics Enforcement Team.

“We do not have the infrastructure in place today to investigate unlawful marijuana cultivation or distribution, and have not for many years, especially since the new laws regarding recreational marijuana came into effect,” Carver said.

The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission will administer the grant program, which is scheduled to last through 2024.

SB1544 also addresses some “glitches” in existing marijuana laws, Bovett said, such as allowing the Oregon Health Authority to limit how many seedlings a medical marijuana grower can have at a time.

“There is currently no limit, and this is a federal concern,” Bovett wrote in a letter to lawmakers.