By Mike Leonard
For the Independent
Summer in Southern Oregon brings thoughts of Shakespeare, Britt, the fair, sun and rafting but it also means the beginning of the prodigious marijuana grow season. Southern Oregon and Northern California have always ranked as top growing areas for illegal marijuana. To help combat its harvest and distribution Jackson County has teamed with 6 other counties in the state to form Southern Oregon Multi-agency Marijuana Eradication and Reclamation (SOMMER).
To kick off the new collaboration, Jackson County recently offered a press tour to see a marijuana grow site which was raided in 2009. This site which officers referred to as an “easier” site to get to shows the life of those involved with maintaining plants and the damage they create in our forests. This particular site was located on the remains of a forgotten logging road which was reached by walking and crawling nearly straight uphill.
This particular grow was only 3-acres and contained around 2,000 plants with two men (who were arrested) tending to the site. Groups of two to four people typically inhabit the camps throughout the growing season, living there, providing security and maintaining the plants. Unlike your local boy-scout troop these “campers” aren’t concerned with the impact on the forest. On our tour the items left behind included hundreds of feet of PVC pipe (used to carry water from a nearby creek), pans, fertilizer bags, a car battery, cell phone chargers, playing cards, discarded food containers, clothes and general garbage. Basically everything needed for multiple people to live for months.
The raid itself and removing the plants was a process taking over 100 man-hours, as well as helicopter time at $1,000 an hour. But investigating, finding and raiding a grow like this one is only part of the problem faced by local, state and federal agencies. After the raid money has to be found so that crews can return to clean the debris from the site, remove dangers to hunters and hikers and lessen the environmental impact created by people whose only concern is to strip, grow, harvest and leave.
Officials on the press tour estimated another 100 man-hours along with many thousands of dollars in helicopter and equipment time would be needed to clean and repair this small site. The garbage isn’t the only impact on our forests, prior to planting the growers clear natural ground cover and remove small trees causing potential erosion and slide problems. Make-shift ponds are often created to store water causing dangers to hikers and hunters. Propane tanks, other fuels, batteries, pesticides and fertilizers are also common and have to be neutralized and removed lest they become environmental or public hazards. So far there have not been any forest fires linked to grow sites, but seeing the conditions and the terrain involved leaves you to wonder not if, but when a grower will be responsible for more than just the damage created by the illegal drug trade.
As with anything, funding is one of the primary concerns faced by officials to eradicate illegal marijuana grows. Creation of the SOMMER program was aided by a $202,000 grant from a Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression grant sponsored by the Department of Justice. Officials are still left trying to scrape together funding to return to the sites for cleaning. Total removal and reclamation of a site can run into tens of thousands of dollars quickly.
In 2009, over 30,000 marijuana plants were removed in Jackson County, part of 210,000 plants state-wide resulting in a loss of $451 million dollars to drug cartels. The money received by SOMMER is less than $7 per plant removed last year by Jackson County but very welcome. Officials hope that the seven counties and multiple agencies working together will be able to put a sizeable dent in illegal drugs in Southern Oregon and being transported out of the region.