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Jackson County asks for National Guard support to shut down illegal marijuana farms

Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney voiced support for the request to deploy the National Guard to Southern Oregon.

SALEM, Oregon — Jackson County Commissioners have asked Gov. Kate Brown to deploy the Oregon National Guard to help shut down illegal cannabis farms, and Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney has voiced support for the idea.

Jackson County declared a state of emergency on Oct. 13 after officials became overwhelmed by the size and number of illegal marijuana farms operating in the county and in neighboring Josephine County. That same day, police raided a site that had roughly two tons of processed marijuana and 17,500 cannabis plants.

Oregon legalized the production, processing and sale of recreational cannabis in 2014, but the state has continued to grapple with unregistered growers who skirt Oregon taxes and regulations and sell to the black market outside of the state, the Associated Press reported.

RELATED: Authorities seize nearly 6,000 marijuana plants at illegal grow operation in Washington County

The Jackson County Code Enforcement Division initiated almost 700 cases of marijuana-related code violations in the first eight months of this year, according to the commissioners' emergency declaration. The county commissioners sent a letter to Brown, Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek requesting assistance last week.

Illegal growing operations steal scarce water supplies and often exploit migrant workers, according to officials in southern Oregon. They can also be hard to track because many of the illegal marijuana growing operations occur at registered hemp farms that are legally permitted to grow low-THC plants.

A bill passed this summer empowered the Oregon Department of Agriculture and Liquor and Cannabis Commission to check if registered hemp farms were actually growing marijuana. In a recent OLCC enforcement operation targeting hemp farms in Jackson and Josephine Counties, test results from 212 sites showed 58% of samples tested positive for THC. 

RELATED: Man who got high on dangerous levels of THC from mislabeled CBD drops is suing

OLCC spokesman Bryant Haley said inspectors also found environmental degradation and problematic labor conditions such as workers sleeping on farms. The OLCC will likely expand its enforcement operations, he said.

"We have to take a look at this holistically and say 'what are we doing?'" he said. '"How are we going to do this better as a state? How are we going to keep bad actors out that are taking advantage of our beautiful state and not paying back into the system that we all agreed to?'"

Associated Press reporter Andrew Selsky and KGW reporter Alma McCarty contributed to this report.