The marijuana business is taking its toll on Josephine County — increased crime, businesses leaving, even killings — and if it makes its way to Curry County, Sheriff John Ward says there’s little he can do about it.
As citizens there complain and new land use codes are crafted, growers — both legal and not — will begin to edge west.
Julie Schmelzer, former county administration director here and currently the community development director in Josephine County, said she wrote Curry County commissioners a few months ago informing them that Josephine would soon implement regulations that might result in growers leaving there and moving into neighboring Curry County.
“I asked them (Curry commissioners) to develop rules to make sure that the industry developed in an equitable manner and one that would be safe for all residents,” she said. “Experiencing the crime, horror and sadness many of our residents are experiencing, I feel for your future. You need commissioners that will take a stance on a tough issue and do the right thing.”
She added, “There is room in society to grow a crop that the voters have approved, but it is a crop that invites greed and crime, and needs regulation.”
Schmelzer said only County Commissioner Court Boice responded to her suggestion. He placed an item addressing it on today’s county commissioner meeting agenda. The meeting is at 10 a.m. at the Courthouse Annex on Moore Street in Gold Beach.
So close to home
Some of the stories Schmelzer tells are chilling.
A couple in their 80s came to her office asking for help. Marijuana farms, called “grows” had cropped up throughout their neighborhood, and they now feared for their safety. In tears, they told Schmelzer how they slept in shifts, with one always awake to guard the property.
When they leave the house, the woman reclines in her seat in the car to give the impression that someone is staying at home.
A legal grow is situated near an elementary school in Grants Pass, and children are afraid of the man who guards the site, as his head is draped in a black mask and in his arms is a semi-automatic rifle.
“They’ll kill you,” Schmelzer said of some of the remote areas in the county — places the sheriff and Oregon State Patrol officers won’t go. “They don’t care.”
Business owners have told her they’re leaving the county. An eye doctor can’t attract others to his practice, citing crime in Josephine County. Some growers even dose their dogs with methamphetamine to make them more vicious. U-Haul vehicles are unavailable right now, as they’re all being used during the marijuana harvest season, Schmelzer said.
Even she has received death threats for her involvement in the zoning regulations.
Former Sheriff John Bishop warned citizens years ago that the cartels were infiltrating Curry County. Few believed him; some said it was a ploy to get voters to approve a proposed property tax increase for law enforcement.
“The cartels have been here for a long time,” Ward said. “We don’t have the resources to fight it. Until someone figures out how to fund us so I can get at least 12 deputies on 24/7, this is the stuff we’re going to be looking at. Can we fight it? Not really.”
Ward said other counties and states with legalized marijuana are experiencing huge growth in farms, illegal grows and transporting it all out.
“We don’t have the resources to deal with that,” he said. “We stay busy just trying to keep the peace around here.”
Newspaper accounts in Josephine County — and Northern California counties — say many sites are hidden behind black plastic tarps guarded by masked gunmen and vicious dogs. There are numerous reports of illegal camping, guns, open sewage, unregulated pesticide and water use among the many side-effects.
Students drop out of high school to make good money, and, this time of year, “trimmigrants,” those people hired seasonally to trim the plants, descend on Grants Pass and Medford looking for work.
“Think hard, Curry County,” she added. “Your serenity, peace, beauty and livability are at stake.”
State Rep. David Brock Smith tried to initiate discussions about zoning and marijuana grows when he was a Curry County commissioner, particularly after he noted the challenges facing others in Coos, Douglas, Jackson and Josephine counties.
He couldn’t get the support from the other two commissioners on the board at the time, Smith said.
“It is critical work that needs to be done for our citizens and their communities,” he said. “I, and the state, are happy to help wherever we can, and I’ve reached out to county staff with this offer. But unfortunately, my phone hasn’t rung.”
He’s also working at the state level to change legislation regarding how marijuana tax revenue is doled out to participating counties and cities. Currently, more of that money goes back to city and county coffers in which the herb was purchased, and not where it was grown.
Curry County director of community development Carolyn Johnson could not be reached for comment.
“I hope she reaches out to her peers for guidance,” Smith said. “She doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel on this.”
Ward said he’s not sure what might or might not come.
“I couldn’t tell you what the future’s going to look like; we’re not there yet. But I can tell you it’ll be a future with marijuana in it. I think it’s just gotten out of hand, to tell you the truth.