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Illegal marijuana operations increase across state

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series about illegal marijuana grow operations occurring across rural Oklahoma. The series explores operation details, legislation to address the issue and more.

“Two years ago, people couldn’t afford their own closing cost,” local realtor Paulette Statler said. “Now, all of a sudden, I’ve never seen so much cash thrown around in my life.”

The Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics has been fielding 30-50 tips per day about people trying to purchase land unsolicited, spokesperson Mark Woodward said. The calls from law enforcement officials have been increasing within the last eight to 10 months since September 2020.

“This is an issue throughout the state,” Rep. Brian Hill said. “Every representative on some part has had someone reaching out to them with great concern.”

Many law enforcement agencies have shutdown illegal marijuana grow operations that have been on significant areas of farmland across the state. There is no predominant organization trying to buy land for criminal marijuana grow operations, Woodward added.

It’s a mix between Hispanic, Asian, Russian and even local groups throughout the U.S., he said.

However, Hill said the group legislators are hearing the most about is Chinese. What began as word of mouth, has since morphed into statewide investigations.

Woodward said there are currently dozens.

There is evidence of illegal activity, where growers cannot account for any legal method by which they’re shipping plants out of state, he said. Growers are also falsifying reports, saying they’re not growing marijuana when they are.

“There’s a lot of different information that leads us to believe even if a farm may be licensed, it doesn’t mean any of their product is going to the legitimate Oklahoma market, like the law requires,” Woodward said.

Organizations are finding areas of land through various instances. Some cold call residences, while others find locations that are on the market, Woodward said.

The Oklahoma City Metropolitan Association Multiple Listing Service is where most people go to put their property on the market.

“Some of them are legal, moving here from other states to start legal businesses, but there’s also many who are buying land and growing criminally,” he said.

Sex trafficking, environmental concerns amid operations

There is growing concern among residents and legislators if the marijuana operations are a smokescreen for human trafficking. In some cases, Woodward said it is, where growers are looking to cut corners.

“It’s about money,” Hill said.

Labor trafficking is also present, as some workers have informed OBN they were not paid after harvest. Some operations have had 15-50 people working, depending on the size.

An Ardmore marijuana bust in June indicated there were more than 65 grow houses with approximately 27,000 plants, according to a Carter County sheriff’s report. Four Chinese men were charged with illegal cultivation and possessing firearms during commission of a felony.

The men were not living illegally in Ardmore. 

There were about 45 workers at the Smokey Ridge bust, who were reportedly living in poor conditions, having to sleep on plywood beds. The bust had an estimated street value of $50 million.

A state-issued license was not purchased for the operation, the report stated.

Many other concerns surround the operations, Woodward said. Environmental damages have been present, as dead animals have been located at some sites.

The Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics, Love County and Carter County sheriff’s departments shut down an unlicensed marijuana grow operation July 21 in Marietta. OBN officials said they are concerned about environmental and wildlife damages caused by illegal operations. People who have information about criminal drug activity are advised to call OBN at 1-800-522-8031. Photo / Provided

Runoff water is also going into local creeks, which are shared by neighbors. Woodward said OBN is concerned about contamination, due to pesticides in the water.

Some sites have been stealing water and tapping into neighbors’ electricity, as well, he said. Draining of power grids is another concern.

“There’s a lot of things going on behind the scenes that can leave a lasting negative impact on a community,” Woodward said.

The decreasing amount of available land is another concern to legislators and realtors.

“If someone sells their house, they can build a new house,” Hill said. “If someone sells their company, they can build a new company. But once the land is sold, it’s gone.” 

While not all groups have illegal intentions, both are coming to Oklahoma in droves because of cheap land prices and licensing, as well as loose regulations, Woodward said.

“There’s only so much dirt,” Statler said.

There is not a particular area in the state that groups are targeting, rather grow operations are essentially popping up overnight across all 77 counties. Drug operations are specific to marijuana, as groups know they can increase their profit margins, Woodward said.

The bureau is working with local legislators to address the issue as quickly as they can, he added.

“We’re staying very busy,” Woodward said.

Sen. Jim Inhofe’s office announced July 7 that he requested $4 million in federal funds for OBN to hire more agents to make an enforcement task force to target criminal marijuana operations throughout the state.

A legislative task force will also hopefully begin work as soon as possible, according to Sen. Lonnie Paxton, who is the Public Safety Committee chairman. This task force has plans to work with OBN, the state fire marshal’s office and the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority to identify what legislation is needed to address illegal grow operations.

There were also 113 interim studies approved July 23 in the House of Representatives, one of which involves illegal foreign land acquisition in the state.

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