With marijuana legalization spurring a “green rush” in Oregon, some newly arriving cannabis entrepreneurs have drawn the ire of deep-rooted rural residents.
The accusations often center on behaviors such as speeding in all-terrain vehicles, late-night partying and otherwise pestering neighbors.
“None of that is inherent to growing this plant,” said Katie Kulla, who grows marijuana and vegetables near McMinnville, Ore. “The culture clash is the issue, not the crop.”
For farmers, the culture clash is worrisome due to suspicions that some marijuana growers illegally irrigate their crop — either out of ignorance or disrespect for the Western system of “prior appropriations” water law.
“What concerns me is people stealing water from rivers,” said Gordon Lyford, a certified water rights examiner in Southern Oregon.
In the West, water rights are based on a “first in time, first in right” system in which properties with the earliest “senior” claims to water have priority over “junior” users.
Recreational marijuana growers must prove to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission that they have water rights or can otherwise lawfully irrigate the crop, but not all producers are licensed under the system. Medical growers must be registered and receive cards from the Oregon Health Authority. Under a law going into effect next year, they will be able to sell up to 20 pounds into the recreational system under certain conditions.
Some medical marijuana growers are coming from the Eastern U.S., where water law is different, leading them to believe they can irrigate from a stream simply because it flows through their property, Lyford said.
Domestic wells aren’t supposed to irrigate commercially grown cannabis or any other crop, but medical marijuana farmers can use them as long as they’re not growing for profit.
In reality, though, it’s well known that medical marijuana is diverted onto the black market, Lyford said.
In those cases, producers can simply lie to water masters, who enforce water rights for the Oregon Water Resources Department, he said. “They’ve got a story to tell Water Resources.”
Since recreational marijuana became legal, the department has seen a spike in complaints about cannabis. In some cases, they’re legitimate, in other cases, people simply don’t like marijuana, said Racquel Rancier, the agency’s senior policy coordinator.
The question of whether medical growers are diverting their crop for profit, and thus illegally irrigating with domestic wells, is tough for the agency to answer, she said.
“That continues to be a challenge for us,” Rancier said. “It’s not always an easy process to demonstrate they’re using it illegally.”
Since the agency isn’t equipped to run sting operations or in-depth investigations, it must effectively take medical marijuana growers at their word that no profits are being earned.
“We don’t have the tools or the training or the authority to run some sort of fiscal audit,” said Ivan Gall, administrator of the department’s field services division.
However, there’s no evidence that illegal use of domestic wells by medical growers has reduced available water for legitimate irrigators, since the marijuana plots use fairly modest amounts of water, he said.
“I’ve yet to document any well-to-well interference that would injure other users in the area,” Gall said.
The agency stops illegal irrigation regardless of whether it’s affecting senior water rights, and roughly 99 percent of unlawful users comply voluntarily without the department issuing an enforcement order, he said.