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$940k grant from state will fund additional detectives, supplies for two years.

COURTESY PHOTO: COLUMBIA COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE - Columbia County and state and federal law enforcement served search warrants on illegal marijuana grows in 2021.The Columbia County Sheriff's Office was awarded a $940,000 grant from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission to fund an Illegal Marijuana Market Enforcement Team.

The grant will add two detectives and cover associated supply and administrative costs for two years, Columbia County Sheriff Brian Pixley said.

Though marijuana use is legal for Oregon adults, law enforcement officials say that parts of the state have become a hotspot for illegal marijuana grows that are harvested and transported to other parts of the United States for sale.

The Sheriff's Office worked with Oregon State Police and the Drug Enforcement Agency last year after receiving tips about illegal marijuana grows from Columbia County "regarding a Chinese national organized crime ring that had set up illegal marijuana grows across the state of Oregon in the rural areas," Pixley said.

The marijuana trafficking group would send the cannabis to the East Coast, where they could make more money, Pixley said.

"But the other, overarching part of this was the human trafficking. Because what these organizations do is they will smuggle immigrants in illegally, and then they will have these people work off their debts on the farms," Pixley told the Spotlight.COURTESY PHOTO: COLUMBIA COUNTY SHERIFFS OFFICE - Illegal marijuana grow operations in north Columbia County were among those searched by law enforcement.

The sheriff's other concern is that "marijuana leads to other substances, whether it's fentanyl, methamphetamine (or) heroin," he said.

Indoor marijuana grow operations require artificial light that can rack up high electricity costs. The Clatskanie People's Utility District has low utility rates compared to other parts of the state, Pixley said, which can draw in operations.

Law enforcement officials executed search warrants in Oregon last summer related to the marijuana operation. A Texas man was indicted earlier this year on multiple drug charges for his alleged leadership role in the Oregon marijuana trafficking scheme and pleaded guilty.

"In previous search warrants, we have identified the suspects as Chinese nationals with links to organized crime in their country. We also have found the potential for human trafficking used to work these illegal grows," Pixley wrote in the grant application.

During a two-day period in September 2021, search warrants were executed on 25 locations in Oregon, including nine properties within the Clatskanie PUD, according to the grant application. The investigation and searches yielded thousands of marijuana plants and pounds of marijuana, firearms and more than $590,000 in cash, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney's Office.

The Columbia County Sheriff's Office plans to move two current deputies into the new detective roles, and will hire to backfill the deputies' previous positions.

Pixley said he hopes "the team will be successful enough that they can become self-sustaining through seizures."

In recent years, the Sheriff's Office has been searching for additional funding to increase the number of deputies in unincorporated Columbia County. Current deputies have spent time working on the investigation with OSP and DEA, but their pay has still come from the county's law enforcement budget. With the grant, the illegal marijuana investigations will be funded without using local dollars, freeing up that funding for other local needs.

"This is another way for us to get additional boots on the ground, to help with caseload and call load with other issues," Pixley said. "And this is going to come at no additional cost to taxpayers, and no additional cost to the county."

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