PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — The Columbia County Sheriff’s Office announced this week that deputies found approximately $2.2 million worth of cannabis — including 6,611 plants and 133.5 pounds of processed marijuana — at illegal grow sites in Scappoose, Deer Island and Clatskanie during a bust Wednesday, March 1.

While the discovery on its own was not particularly notable outside of Columbia County — according to law enforcement data, 105 tons of illegally grown cannabis was discovered throughout the state just last year — it does raise the question: Why do people still grow marijuana illegally in Oregon?

The state legalized possession and use in 2015, after voters passed Ballot Measure 91 the previous year. There were nearly 800 active marijuana retail licenses in Oregon as of Feb. 15, 2023, according to the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission.

The answer lies in the demand for marijuana outside Oregon rather than within the state.

“Because cannabis is illegal in many states … there’s an incentive for illegal producers to try to grow and export (illegally) to those other states. OLCC-licensed recreational marijuana producers (and other licensees) must sell their products within Oregon’s borders,” said Mark Pettinger, a representative for the commission.

Western Oregon offers a good temperate environment and landscape for marijuana to grow. The soil is rich, soft and loamy, plus there’s plenty of rain.

“It grows well in Oregon — especially outdoors,” Pettinger said.

While Oregon has positioned itself to be a legal export state if and when the federal status of marijuana changes to allow interstate sales activity, according to Pettinger, export is still illegal to states that haven’t legalized marijuana.

In 2019, then-Gov. Kate Brown signed Senate Bill 582 into law, legalizing the transportation of cannabis across state lines. But the law itself is aspirational — even licensed growers and distributors are prohibited from acting on it.

Under the law, cross-state transportation would only be allowed between states that have legalized marijuana, and even that export isn’t permitted until the federal government changes the status of interstate cannabis sales.

Although SB 582 aimed to unburden the state of excess cannabis, Oregon has yet to reap the benefits.

Still, Pettinger argues there are more benefits to being licensed than being unlicensed in Oregon.

“For the legitimate industry, being in the legal system means not having to worry about law enforcement as long as you’re abiding by state laws and following OLCC rules. For consumers, it means having access to a produce that’s regulated and has been tested,” he said.

But getting licensed can be difficult.

Growers have to fill out an initial form, complete a land use compatibility statement, provide a map of the premises and information on the structure of the business, and fill out a marijuana applicant questionnaire, an individual history form and a producer property owner informed consent form.

The application costs $250. Growers also have to prove that all their workers are also licensed, which costs $100 per worker.

Completing this process and getting approved also depends on whether Oregon is currently accepting license applications. Right now, it isn’t.

Senate Bill 218, which Brown also signed into law in 2019, authorizes the Oregon Liquor & Cannabis Commission to refuse licenses for marijuana production based on the supply and demand of the substance.

And in 2022, during Brown’s last year in office, the governor signed House Bill 4016, which requires the commission to stop processing applications for new producer, processor, retailer, or wholesaler licenses. The moratorium will remain in effect until March 31, 2024.

“Because licensing is so difficult to obtain, a lot of people go black market because it’s easier,” said Emily Marshall, a manager at dispensary Gnome Grown in St. Helens. “When you grow and take that out of state into some other states where it’s not legal, you can obviously mark that product up quite a bit. It’s pretty lucrative.”

Marshall said there’s still a market for illegally grown marijuana in Oregon too, though.

“I mean, we live in a very fertile area. Almost everybody I know grows,” Marshall said.

Oregon currently allows people to grow up to four plants per household, but that limit is difficult to enforce.

“It’s pretty easy for anyone and mama and their grandma to grow weed these days,” Marshall said. “And then they tend to have a surplus and want to make a little side cash.”

While selling cannabis across state lines is the main driver of illegal growing, there are also people who grow with the intent of selling the unlicensed marijuana for a profit in Oregon, intending to undercut the prices at licensed marijuana shops and dispensaries.

“For us, obviously, when people crop out in our purchasing outside of a dispensary, it does (hurt us),” Marshall said.

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN 6 media partner.

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