Authorities recently removed 11,400 marijuana plants from illegal grow sites in San Mateo County, California. Four people have been arrested. (Courtesy of the San Mateo County Narcotics Task Force)

After local officials decline to investigate Oregon marijuana operation, feds step in

SALEM, Ore. — Federal officials are investigating a marijuana processing facility in Oregon after an explosion there injured a man who was previously convicted in a money laundering operation linked to pot-trafficking.

The probe is a fairly rare instance in which U.S. officials are investigating a marijuana case in a state where cannabis is legal. Federal enforcement of U.S. laws that ban possession and distribution of marijuana is restricted by the U.S. Justice Department, but is permitted when marijuana is being distributed to other states and in a few other situations.

Police in Cottage Grove, a town of 10,000, called on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration for help after fire officials found hundreds of marijuana plants growing inside the building where the explosion occurred on Nov. 16. The explosion burned a man who on parole after serving a 90-day sentence in the money laundering operation, The Register-Guard, a newspaper in the nearby city of Eugene, reported.

“We have a large amount of marijuana grows,” Capt. Doug Skaggs of the Cottage Grove Police Department said in a telephone interview. “We’re not different than everyone else (in Oregon).”

Skaggs said that due to manpower issues, the police department often liaises with the DEA.

A report by The Associated Press in August showed that large amounts of marijuana are being smuggled out of Oregon, although what percent of the tons grown in the state is trafficked is hotly debated. Local law enforcement in Oregon is often too strapped for personnel and funds, and is busy with other investigations and mindful of restrictions against searches without cause, to figure out which grows are registered and legal and which are illegal.

When DEA agent Sean Cummings got a warrant the day after the explosion and searched the building, he found 728 growing pot plants, 544 kilograms (1,200 pounds) of marijuana, and marijuana extracts, according to federal court documents. That address was not authorized by Oregon authorities to grow or process marijuana, the court documents say.

Eric Scully, who was burned on the face and hands in the explosion which was apparently caused by combustible materials used to make marijuana oil, had been on parole after accepting a plea agreement in federal court last year. Investigators say he had shipped marijuana grown in Oregon via the mail to states where it remains illegal. Cottage Grove is also next to Interstate 5, a major drug-trafficking route.

Scully and two co-defendants in that money-laundering case earned over $1 million, authorities alleged. A coffee kiosk, Blac Sheep Coffee, that Scully owned was used launder the proceeds.

U.S. Attorney Billy Williams had recommended imprisonment of 21 months, followed by three years of supervised release. In the end, Scully got 90 days, had to pay restitution of $4,800 and forfeited several rifles and pistols and four expensive Swiss watchers, among other items.

After the illegal grow operation was discovered last month, local prosecutors declined to pursue the matter, according to the federal documents. The district attorney’s office in Lane County, where Cottage Grove is located, did not immediately return a call from AP.

Kevin Sonoff, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Portland, said he cannot comment on active investigations.

Williams, the U.S. attorney, told AP in an interview earlier this year that he wanted local jurisdictions to request help from his office, which has prosecutors who specialize in drug cases, to “work in partnerships with us to address these issues of overproduction and diversion.”

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