Search-and-destroy missions for illegal pot falter in Oregon
A counterdrug pilot working with Oregon State Police lifts the nose of her National Guard Bell OH-58 Kiowa helicopter to climb over a northeastern Oregon ridgeline while searching for illegal pot gardens
A pile of trash includes plastic irrigation pipe and 54-pound bags labeled "Powerline 16-16-16 fertilizer" at an illegal pot grow in Wallowa County. Police removed or destroyed 91,000 marijuana plants, ranging from seedlings to 10 inches tall, in the June 2011 raid.
Oregon is poised to become the first in a group of key battleground marijuana states to exit a nationwide program designed to discover and destroy black-market pot plantations.
The move follows Oregon's first year of recreational marijuana sales and a thriving industry with legal marijuana farms stretching from the coast to the Idaho border.
Money for the eradication effort in Oregon has dropped by nearly three-quarters in the last year to $200,000, by far the largest percentage cut in the country, financial data from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration shows.
That's on top of steady cuts over the past three fiscal years that add up to an overall 80 percent decline.
To the north, another well-established hot spot for illegal pot grows is taking a different approach. Washington has generally kept its Drug Enforcement Administration money intact since legalizing recreational marijuana. It's dropped only about 30 percent over three years, down to $760,000 this year.
But with no one strongly advocating for it, the program in Oregon appears headed for the chopping block.
"If you look at a graph and see how steeply the budget trends down, I'd imagine it's very possible we won't get funding for this next year," said State Police Capt. Bill Fugate, whose agency has been one of the program's main financial beneficiaries.
Police and sheriff's offices typically use the money on equipment, training and helicopters based on allocations largely established through state requests.
The Oregon Department of Justice passed oversight of the program – making the funding requests and doling out money to local agencies – to the Oregon State Sheriffs' Association this year.
That association sees it as an unwanted burden.
"They must've caught me at a weak moment when they asked us to take it over," said retired Curry County Sheriff John Bishop, executive director of the nonprofit group that provides administrative help to sheriffs. "We're not even going to run it next year. ... I don't know who will yet. No one's figured that out."
Discussions begin in January over who will take it on, he said. He wouldn't speculate on who's in the mix.
It's possible the state could step in with money, but there's no question that the focus has shifted.
"The problem is the way the program utilizes funds from DEA, it doesn't have a good match with our regulatory scheme," said Jeffrey Rhoades, senior adviser on marijuana policy to Gov. Kate Brown and a longtime prosecutor.
"That's not to say we've beaten the black market," Rhoades said. "The main point is, in this new legal market, we need to adjust our thinking in how we conduct these kind of operations."
Oregon entered an exclusive club a decade ago: part of the Drug Enforcement Administration's "M7" – seven states identified as primary marijuana cultivators. The others were California, Washington, Hawaii, Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia. The federal government has spent roughly $18 million annually – mostly in the M7 states -- to focus on eradication.
And it appeared to return dividends – Oregon authorities pulled up or burned an average of 100,000 plants a year when the money started coming in.
But in 2012, discoveries plummeted to 33,000 plants a year, and that level has held steady since then. Washington experienced a similar nose-dive.
Neither state remains in the M7.
The Northwest states are now closer to Colorado, where major marijuana grows historically haven't been as common and which stopped receiving federal marijuana eradication funds in 2015.
Using state money, Colorado found about 27,000 plants last year, not far from its annual average over the past five years.
Fugate imagines this will play out in Oregon as well.
"Let's say DEA money goes away completely," he said. "We're not going to get out of the business. There are four stages to this game: detection, investigation, eradication, and apprehension (of growers). Funding cuts will mostly take away the detection aspect. And we will be spending more state money than we have in the past."
The Governor's Office agrees the program will continue, federal money or not.
Rhoades said Mexican drug cartels are still a concern and search-and-destroy operations are important for fostering a "good business climate" for marijuana shops in Oregon, mainly by suppressing the black market.
"But that's only one tool in the tool belt," he said. "We're going to start being smarter about this."
The Drug Enforcement Administration program itself has come under fire from national marijuana reform advocates.
U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., recently led a push in the House to drastically reduce the program's budget. While it didn't make it into the final budget, he said success is inevitable, given the shifting national sentiment. As California and other states legalize recreational marijuana use this year, "they should follow Oregon's example," Lieu said.
"This is one of the stupidest programs we have in the federal government," he said. "In a world of limited resources, funds would be far better spent fighting drugs like opioids. I understand why law enforcement would want a continued stream of funding from the DEA, but we can also get law enforcement to accept that funding to go somewhere else."
But the budget cuts in Oregon aren't entirely by choice. While the state requested much less this year than previous years under the program, Bishop noted that it received still less than that — $200,000 in response to a $400,000 request.
"A lot of us speculate that we're being punished, but we don't know," Bishop said. "It's total speculation. We're not hearing anything from the feds."
A spokesman with the Drug Enforcement Administration said the agency declined comment.
The dwindling money in Oregon worries Washington State Patrol Lt. Chris Sweet, who oversees the marijuana eradication program there. Oregon authorities often partner with his agency on marijuana operations.
Mexican drug cartels, Sweet said, could see Oregon's lack of Drug Enforcement Administration money as a business opportunity. He cited a spike in armed guards at grow operations as evidence Mexican gangs are reasserting themselves in the region.
"These international cartels are watching public opinion, watching for which states won't have the resources to fight them," he said.
Bishop, the Oregon sheriffs' group leader, agreed that police are seeing "way more" armed guards at grow operations recently. What's more, a crop of over 6,500 plants connected to Mexican cartels was discovered 35 miles south of Portland in June, near the Willamette River, the Yamhill County Sheriff's Office reported.
But Bishop doesn't subscribe to the theory that Mexican gangs may decide to grow more pot in the state.
"If you have a lawn and it's a beautiful lawn and moss keeps creeping into it, it'll continue to grow," he said. "But why wouldn't they just go indoors and do it legally? It's really easy now. That makes more sense."
Portland-based attorney Bear Wilner-Nugent, who focuses on marijuana law, called Sweet's concerns unfounded.
"Say what you will about the moral standing of Mexican drug cartels, but they're every bit as likely to be thoughtful and intelligent as other businesspeople," he said. "They're going to slice the pie more thinly, and focus on where they don't have competition with hundreds of legal businesses. Obviously that's meth, heroin, and cocaine in Oregon."
-- Drew Atkins
Special to The Oregonian/OregonLive
An earlier version of this story misidentified the agency that oversaw the eradication program in Oregon
ZERO POT PULLS THE YEAR DAVE LEWIS WAS MURDERED - -- -
Where Mike Winters put money, manpower, interest...in pot pulls...
12 years worth.
NOT ONE PRESS CONFERENCE ON THE MURDER & BODY BURNING OF DAVID LEWIS