An inside look at the humanitarian crisis within illegal marijuana grows

MEDFORD, Ore. – As local law enforcement makes one illegal marijuana bust after another, they’re also finding human victims at the grow sites themselves. Law enforcement has confirmed much of the illegal cannabis activity in our region is from international cartels. But it’s not just the plants, money, and weapons that local, state, and federal officials are after.

It’s a plant that makes a lot of profit. But it also has a dark side. We’re talking marijuana and it’s not the legal kind.

“As the number of these operations has grown, the number of workers has grown as well, which increases the propensity for this to take place,” said Special Agent in Charge Robert Hammer. SAC Hammer oversees the Homeland Security Investigations operations in the Pacific Northwest.

Law enforcement agencies, both local, state, and federal are finding illegal grow operations with human trafficking. But what happens when officials find human trafficking victims?

The Department of Homeland Security said many of these trafficking victims aren’t documented. The agency said they are often brought here from Mexico, China, or Eastern Europe. Many of these victims are afraid of talking to law enforcement for fear of retaliation.

“We want to make sure that we’re arriving on scene, not only in a law enforcement capacity, but in a victim response capacity as well,” said SAC Hammer.

That’s why whether it’s the Jackson/ Josephine County Sheriff’s Office or the DHS, every agency now brings victim advocates. While Jackson County’s Community Works focuses more on sex trafficking than labor trafficking historically they have someone 24/7 to help police and victims.

“They get to tell us what’s happening for them in real-time and in real life, so we can adequately plan for their safety because if we don’t know the whole story, it’s hard to plan for real for their safety,” said Kim Caplan, Advocacy Services Dir. for Community Works.

While each agency continues its’ investigations, SEC Hammer admits even he still has plenty of questions.

“We’re really trying to get a better understanding of the recruitment and the transportation up to Southern Oregon in order to paint a better picture of how these people are falling, what I believe the victim, to these drug trafficking organizations,” said SAC Hammer.

Many of these investigations haven’t led to arrests. NBC5 News asked DHS why that is. It says many of its investigations will result in some changes, but these cases take time.

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Katie Streit
NBC5 News reporter Katie Streit comes from her hometown, Las Vegas. Katie went to the Hank Greenspun School of Journalism & Media Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. While in Las Vegas, Katie won a Student Emmy for her coverage of the Las Vegas Shooting Anniversary. She also hosted and produced the university's political news show, where she interviewed Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak and Congresswoman Dina Titus (NV-1). Her passion for politics turned into a coveted internship at the US Capitol in Washington D.C. In her final months working in the Las Vegas area, she was recognized for her journalism achievements by the Nevada Broadcaster's Foundation. Katie is excited to tell the stories of local Southern Oregonians and Northern Californians. Feel free to contact her at [email protected]
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