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Human trafficking a major problem in Southern Oregon's illegal cannabis industry, according to officials

Sheriffs Dave Daniel and Nathan Sickler from Josephine and Jackson counties speaking at the OLCC meeting Wednesday.
Roman Battaglia
Jefferson Public Radio
Sheriffs Dave Daniel and Nathan Sickler from Josephine and Jackson counties speaking at the OLCC meeting Wednesday.

Authorities from the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission visited Southern Oregon to hear from lawmakers, state officials and stakeholders Wednesday about the issues they expect to face with the cannabis market during 2022.

Law enforcement was overwhelmed with the scale of illegal cannabis operations in Southern Oregon in 2021. This year, growers could be changing tactics and authorities say they need more funding to keep up.

Sheriff Dave Daniel from Josephine County says he worries about the violence, wage theft and human trafficking of migrant workers in the cannabis industry.

“Going out and spending three quarters of the day unburying a man who was shot five times and put in a shallow grave, about half a mile out into the woods," Daniel says. "That keeps me up at night."

On Wednesday, multiple law enforcement agencies said regulators need to provide consistent, long-term funding for enforcement operations. State lawmakers said grant money from the legislature needs to be expedited for combating illegal cannabis operations this year.

Kathy Keesee works with Unete Oregon, a farmworker and immigrant rights group. She says many of those workers on cannabis farms never get paid for their work.

“Because of the drought in California, the ag workers are already moving up here because there’s a lot of areas that aren’t gonna be producing in California," Keesee says.

Because many of the workers who come up to Oregon are undocumented, she says they can be afraid to turn to the police or the courts for help recovering stolen wages. Some illegal activities are happening on marijuana grow operations licensed by the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission, she says.

During Wednesday's meeting, OLCC Commissioner Matt Maletis said that going forward, authorities should look into better education around labor laws for license holders and their workers.

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.