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Illegal cannabis was less of a problem last year. Law enforcement wants to keep it that way

Looking down a marijuana hoop house. There are very thick-grown cannabis plants on the left and right. Down the middle of the hoop house is a mowed-down pathway, created by a tractor at the other end of the hoop house.
Jackson County Sheriff’s Office
An illegal marijuana grow in Rogue River, busted by law enforcement, including Homeland Security Investigations, in October of 2022

Southern Oregon and Northern California are historically popular places to grow cannabis. But recent challenges – including violence against undocumented workers and wage theft on illegal farms – have brought unwanted attention to the cannabis industry.

Robert Hammer is the special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations – also known as HSI – in the Pacific Northwest. He sat down with JPR’s Roman Battaglia to discuss the state of illegal cannabis in the Jefferson Region, and how law enforcement is helping victims of human trafficking.

Transcript:

Roman Battaglia: Robert, thank you for taking the time to talk with me today.

Robert Hammer: Yeah, I'm excited to.

Battaglia: We’ve seen the situation involving illegal cannabis grows evolve over the years. Tell us how things were last season.

Hammer: I think my assessment and again, this is just my assessment, is that we kind of had a lull in the action last year. We’ve really tried to come at these organizations in a unified and coordinated fashion for several years now; at least from our perspective looking at it from the trafficking angle, bringing a lot of additional resources down to that area to really understand the problem set.

We're not planting a flag in the ground claiming success here. I think that the organizations are starting to feel the pressure and the attention that's being placed on them and that is counterintuitive to what they need in order to be successful.

They like to lay low, they like to go out into the remote areas and just do their own thing and make money and be done with it. But when they get all this scrutiny, when they get this attention, not only about marijuana, but now the fact that folks think that they are victimizing these folks in support of their operations, environmental groups are becoming aware of the damage that's taking place to the water tables out there, the pesticides that are being smuggled into the country to kill all the animals to protect the crops.

There's a lot of negative attention that's been placed on this problem set. And I think that that's creating pressure on these organizations that are saying, “maybe we might want to think about building a farm or setting up our operation maybe somewhere else that doesn't quite have the amount of heat on it right now.”

Battaglia: A lot of the group's I've talked to down here in southern Oregon have said that law enforcement agencies need to be more proactive in preventing this type of human trafficking and abuse rather than responding after the illegal grows have been operational. How is your agency doing that?

A large number of plastic containers and bags sit in a pile outside underneath a tree. Various other debris and litter is strewn about. The containers appear to have been used to store chemicals.
Jackson County Sheriff's Office
Empty chemical containers lay strewn about at a raided marijuana grow in Medford, August 10th, 2022

Hammer: So obviously every single day that goes by that somebody's being victimized is a day too long.

We would obviously want to get these on the front side and shut this down the front side if we could, that's where I believe that continued engagement and open lines of communication with our advocacy groups, with recognizing the early signs of trafficking, with information sharing across all levels of state and local governments with us to add value and perspective to what's going on on the ground down there – I think will help us move the needle towards a more proactive response versus a reactive response.

I think there's also some enablers that – while I can't get into specifics because there are ongoing investigations – I do foresee us looking at the supply chain of these organizations, the things that they rely on to set these things up.

Who's providing some of the supplies? Looking at targeting illegal shipments of pesticides across the border that are coming up. All the tools of the trade if you will, that they need on the front side before the workers even hit the ground up there.

And so we're really trying to shift the perspective back a little bit where we can get in there sooner, identify these players sooner and open up the lines of communication with the community at large; because ultimately, these are very remote areas and it's very hard to surveil or keep your finger on the pulse in some of these areas.

But ultimately making the community aware of the problem set and giving the community an option to say, “hey, something's off here. I know who is working on this problem or potential problem. Let me share this information with them.” And that can kick off a whole series of events that could be life-changing for some trafficking victims.

And so I do share that desire to become more proactive and less reactive. But I'm confident based upon the data that I've seen and on the investigations we have ongoing, that we are taking steps in the right direction to move that needle.

Battaglia: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me today.

Hammer: Absolutely, I appreciate you asking some questions and feel free to stay in touch and we'll keep you posted on how this thing develops.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Roman Battaglia is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. After graduating from Oregon State University, Roman came to JPR as part of the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism in 2019. He then joined Delaware Public Media as a Report For America fellow before returning to the JPR newsroom.