Portland, Ore. — Cannabis may be legal in Oregon, but police are still waging a war on weed.
A KGW investigation found the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency is sending more than $750,000 to police in Oregon this year to snuff out pot operations.
"I think the DEA's marijuana eradication program is a huge waste of federal taxpayer dollars," Representative Ted Lieu, a Democrat from California, told KGW.
"We have states like Oregon, Washington and Colorado that have legalized marijuana and then you've got the federal government trying to eradicate it," said Lieu. "That doesn't make any sense."
In Oregon, the bulk of the anti-pot money is used for police to search for marijuana farms by helicopter and then have officers trample though the woods to pull out plants.
"Those of us in reform have always seen eradication programs as largely a make-work, overtime program for cops to go pull weeds and spend taxpayer money on helicopters," said Russ Belville, executive director of Portland NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws).
Last year, state records show drug teams in Oregon spent $275,000 for police overtime and $685,000 for use of a helicopter.
In 2015, Oregon will get $762,000 from the DEA's eradication program.
In August, the Oregon Department of Justice awarded a $450,000 contract to Brim Aviation of Ashland to help look for marijuana farms, according to state records.
According to a company representative, so far this year, Brim Aviation has not been asked to do any marijuana eradication work.
"The only way to find it is to fly," explained Linn County Sheriff Bruce Riley. His office will get $29,000 this year to look for outdoor pot grows hidden on public and private forest land.
"These are not typically your mom and pop that live in the county and just decided to grow out their backyard," said Riley.
Feds target Mexican cartel grow operations
According to intelligence reports, violent Mexican drug cartels have been connected to large outdoor marijuana farms in Oregon. These sophisticated criminal gangs have been known to protect their grow operations with armed guards, booby traps and razor-wired fences.
"This program has proven effective in dismantling and disrupting drug trafficking organizations, has protected public and tribal lands from illegal marijuana grows, and in 2014 was responsible for the removal of almost 5,000 weapons from cannabis cultivators," said Special Agent Joseph Moses of the DEA.
According to state records, there's been a decline in the number of marijuana grows found in Oregon.
In 2014, police in Oregon destroyed 16,067 cannabis plants, down from 26,597 pot plants in 2013 and 27,641 plants in 2012.
Drug cops theorize that Mexican drug cartels have moved away from growing pot. Instead, they're focused on trafficking other illegal drugs like heroin and methamphetamine.
"When there were huge cartel problems, we needed that money. But now we don't," said Jackson County Sheriff Corey Falls.
Earlier this year, Falls disbanded a regional marijuana task force called SOMMER, or Southern Oregon Multi-Agency Marijuana Eradication and Reclamation.
"I wanted to focus on person crimes," said Falls. "Child abuse, sex assault, crimes against people."
In November 2014, Oregon voters passed Measure 91, which allows the personal use and possession of recreational marijuana. But that shift in public policy hasn't stopped the flow of anti-pot money. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law.
"It makes no sense for one hand of government doing one thing, such as eradicate marijuana and have other parts of government, such as state governments, legalizing it," said Rep. Lieu. "The war on marijuana has largely failed and the federal government should get out of the way."