In this June 28, 2017, photo, marijuana plants grow at the Desert Grown Farms cultivation facility in Las Vegas. Frenzied activity at these facilities have been focused on one goal: Getting ready for the start of recreational marijuana sales Saturday in Nevada. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Oregon cops get more complaints about marijuana grows than they can handle

A bizarre kidnapping and robbery case sparked a raid by law enforcement Wednesday at a house off West McAndrews Road where police say they seized 180 pounds of illegal marijuana plants and arrested three men.

“We received a report of a car jacking at gunpoint from the victim,” Medford police Lt. Mike Budreau said. “That turned out to not be entirely true, but it did lead us to an illegal marijuana deal involving several hundred pounds.”

Budreau, with the Medford Area Drug and Gang Enforcement (MADGE), said further investigation determined three suspects took the victim’s car on Saturday to recoup a drug debt.

Arrested for felony kidnapping and robbery were Rafael Olivera Valencia, 36, Adrian Rivera-Espinosa, 41, and Jose Alfredo Butanda, 32, according to Jackson County Circuit Court records. The victim is Cesar Andres Olmedo-Pena, who was allegedly compelled by the suspects to deliver money or property as ransom, according to the court records.

Valencia was lodged in Jackson County Jail and remained there Thursday on $5 million bail, set by Judge Tim Barnack. Rivera-Espinosa and Butanda were in jail on $1 million bail each.

Homeland Security was involved in the case because of false identification provided by the suspects, Budreau said.

MADGE raided a house at 1129 Pinecroft Avenue Wednesday afternoon, seizing 16 plants.

Rivera-Espinosa lived at the house, while Valencia and Butanda had come up recently from Corning, California, possibly to help collect the debt, Budreau said.

“It’s unknown if it’s tied to a possible cartel, but it’s something we’re looking into,” he said. Budreau said the Pinecroft operation came on MADGE’s radar only last Saturday.

The raid underscored local law enforcement’s increasing concerns about organized crime and black-market rings descending on Southern Oregon.

Budreau said MADGE has conducted several unpublicized raids in the area with coordination by the FBI and DEA.

Because of the complicated nature of the investigations, which cross multiple state lines, the outcome will not be released for some time, he said.

The amount of illegal marijuana seizures by MADGE has increased by 52 percent since 2015. So far this year, 360 pounds have been seized, compared with 320 pounds in 2016 and 237 pounds in 2015.

Investigators are confronted with a more complicated landscape of illegal and legal marijuana grows.

While investigating 12 to 15 complaints a week related to cannabis, MADGE has to determine whether they are for medical, retail, hemp or personal consumption.

“There are so many grow sites and so many complaints,” Budreau said. As a result, MADGE can’t look into every complaint, including moving trucks being loaded up in the middle of the night, though it forwards many to code enforcement.

So far this year, 344 complaints have been investigated, he said.

“We focus more of our efforts on more organized, illegal money-laundering operations,” Budreau said.

MADGE, with 10 law enforcement officers, has multiple ongoing investigations into illegal marijuana operations, as well as several investigations that have lasted about two years.

“In just a couple of months, we’ve taken down large marijuana operations,” he said.

Some of the more complicated cases involve legal marijuana operations that are siphoning off a portion of the crop to ship out-of-state, where it can fetch a higher price.

Budreau said it’s difficult to determine how much marijuana a legal plant can produce, but many growers can get up to seven pounds or more, though they may report less. As a result, some of the marijuana goes into the legal system and the rest can be diverted into the black market.

Some operations are attached to businesses that launder the money from black-market sales, he said.

MADGE and other law enforcement agencies think the busts they made are only putting a small dent in shutting down illegal operations.

Law enforcement has uncovered some illegal operations by using a drug-sniffing dog to locate packages with marijuana or cash being shipped out of the state.

This year, MADGE has recovered 27 packages; 90 percent involve a local grower with a legal marijuana site, Budreau said.

Typically they seize about $8,000 to $20,000 in cash per package. When investigators interview suspects, they typically say it’s proceeds from the sale of a car. However, investigation usually determines the claim doesn’t hold water, Budreau said.

MADGE would like to send the drug-sniffing dog to shipping centers more frequently, but Budreau said it doesn’t have the manpower. Investigators are also busy with methamphetamine and heroin cases.

When the drug-sniffing dog does go out, it usually finds illegal shipments, Budreau said.

The concern now is that if cartels are moving into the area, they also bring along violent activities, Budreau said.

Sgt. Ben Lytle of MADGE said it has become more difficult to determine whether a grow site is legal or illegal.

“There’s no real way to distinguish between them,” he said.

Investigators try to track licenses with the Oregon Liquor Control Commission or the Oregon Health Authority. Some growers may be in the process of obtaining a permit, so it doesn’t show up on the state system yet.

He said legal growers typically tend to be more open to having law enforcement look around the property.

State agencies also have grown more alarmed at illegal marijuana activity in Southern Oregon, where most of the state’s pot is grown.

The Oregon State Police and OLCC will be focused more closely on the region next year when they open a shared office in Medford next February that will house OLCC investigators along with OSP officers, which could include at least three investigators and a supervisor.

More law enforcement will help the state better align with the Cole memorandum, released by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2013 to guide states that have legalized marijuana. The directive contained a warning from the Obama administration that states must prevent illegal activities such as allowing shipments of marijuana out of state or using a legitimate marijuana operation as a cover for illegal activity.

Mark Pettinger, spokesman for the OLCC, said state agencies will be working over the next year to get a better assessment of where the legal grows are located.

Right now, he said, his agency along with the Oregon Health Authority, which oversees medical marijuana operations, needs to gain a better understanding of which operations are legal.

“I don’t think our agency has a great understanding of the breadth of this situation,” he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or Follow him on Twitter: @reporterdm.

Information from the Medford, Ore. Mail Tribune