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Drought and illegal marijuana in Southern Oregon take center stage during special legislative session

The Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019.
Bradley Parks
The Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019.

As Oregon lawmakers convened in a special one-day legislative session at the capitol on Monday, two of the issues they took up were central to communities in Southern Oregon: drought and illegal marijuana.

Responding to drought

Lawmakers will spend $100 million on a drought relief package for rural Oregon communities. $40 million will focus on a forgivable loan program to assist farmers and ranchers who lost income during this year’s drought. Another $12 million will focus on domestic well assistance in the Klamath Basin and $9.7 million is earmarked for drought relief on Klamath Tribal lands.

Rep. Khanh Pham, D-Portland, voted to support the bill, but said with climate change already affecting Oregonians, lawmakers need to focus on a comprehensive approach, in addition to one-time support.

“We are facing a future where there’s going to be more droughts, more extreme heat domes, more flooding and extreme weather events and so, as a state, we have a responsibility to make sure that we’re taking a systemic approach,” Pham said.

Drought relief loans will top out at $150,000 depending on the type of producer. Applicants for the loans have to show they suffered a drought-related loss. The loans will not exceed 95% of what farmers would earn in an average year.

Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, agreed that addressing drought in Oregon will not be solved with a single aid program.

“We have a short-term [issue] which this will start fixing, but there’s a long-term problem and that’s water supply,” Findley said.

The $100 million dollars to help Oregonians was allocated by the legislature and came from the Oregon Agricultural Disaster Relief Fund.

Combatting illegal cannabis

In an attempt to head off the growth of illegal marijuana farming, lawmakers passed a bill that will spend $25 million to create a plan to address the illicit cannabis trade and fund a grant program for local law enforcement.

Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, warned that the thriving illegal marijuana industry is now characterized by human trafficking, squalid living conditions, water theft and threats of violence against workers.

“What you allow is what you will get more of,” Knopp said. “So, we need an overwhelming response and that is why I requested the maximum amount for this expenditure right now.”

Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, described the urgency for lawmakers to pass the bill during this special session because of the time required to get law enforcement on the ground to effect change.

“If we waited until the February session to do this, we would be resigning ourselves to a year of the same kind of brutal lawlessness that we saw in 2021,” Golden said.

The bill that lawmakers passed creates a grant program for enforcement in cities and counties dealing with illegal marijuana operations.

The legislation does not specify grant amounts but it will prioritize funding for rural communities and focus on large-scale cultivation operations and those connected to organized crime.

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.