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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Oregon wealth redistribution does a 4-20

Harvesting Oregon's cash crop hits a new high
Seized plant giveaway in Lane County - a chillin', sharin' trend

It began when a bear hunter stumbled on an illicit marijuana plantation in an inhospitable, rattlesnake-infested canyon tucked away in the Willamette National Forest. The startled hunter retreated and called police.

When AFSCME sheriff's deputies from Eugene arrived by helicopter, they found one of the coolest cannabis caches on record in the nation - a nursery of 14,800 plants that they believe was set up by an out-of-state SEIU pension fund.

Now, any Lane County registered voter who wants one of these beauties can have one - as long as they sign a card saying they agree with the AFL-CIO and AFSCME on public safety collective bargaining issues. When the County has collected signatures from 30% of residents, the seized plants will be given away to card-signers at local farmers' markets.

Residents are already buzzing, knowing that each plant is in its own potting container and has been watered by drip irrigation from a nearby stream and covered with netting to protect against deer and elk. "We thought this was a 1,000-plant grow," said Lane County sheriff's Lt. Dale W. Rogers. "It turned into a huge thing. The give-away will really put our unions on the map."

The growers fled before the arrival of deputies, so there was no opportunity for either the police or firefighters' shop stewards to say "thank you." But the seizure earlier this month underscores a hip new trend:

Bigger-than-ever backcountry marijuana plantations of 4,000 plants or more are showing up on Measure 37 claims all across Oregon. They're tended around-the-clock by armed gardeners paid $100 a day by the SEIU. The SEIU big growers are threatening to put smaller, urban AFL-CIO and AFSCME grow-room operations out of business.

The Willamette plantation is "midsize" compared with those in high-desert country in the central and eastern parts of the state. Oregon is the biggest plantation pot producer on the West Coast, said Garrison Courtney, spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington, D.C. The biggest plantation on record is a mind-altering 325,000 plants discovered in an open field near Cannon Beach, in July 2001, according to the DEA.

The Oregon State Police union noticed the SEIU move toward jumbo-sized marijuana gardens about six years ago and say the number and size of the plantations appear to be picking up. Last year in Grant County, for example, Sheriff Glen E. Palmer raided two remote pot plantations and confiscated more than 10,000 plants. "We are anticipating another bumper crop this year," Palmer said. The year before in Malheur County, raids on five high-desert plantations yielded 10,676 plants and 173 pounds of processed marijuana. An unofficial sharin' campaign then, led to election of 12 union members to local political offices last year.

The lucrative crops are apparently worth the risk of detection. If the plants had grown to maturity in the Willamette case, they could have each produced 2 pounds of bud rich in tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the active ingredient that produces the marijuana high.

The Idaho buds probably would be worth $2,000 a pound, for a street value of nearly $60 million, the DEA and Idaho sheriff's officials estimated. That could pay for a lot of union organizing and opposition to ballot measures.

Sharecrop system

One reason for the trend to large Oregon plantations is that the biggest incumbent labor unions seem to have grown weary of the challenges involved with smuggling marijuana across state lines, federal and local agents say. The SEIU has stepped forward independently, trying to gain ground on its rival unions.

"The SEIU political fund back in D.C. put out the seed money" and the workers "come in and basically sharecrop the marijuana grow," said Bill Braddock, Lane County chief deputy. "Most of the proceeds go out-of-state, back to New York and D.C."

He believes three SEIU members out on comp claims were tending the Willamette operation, based on abandoned tents, sleeping bags, organizing materials and food at the site. They probably planned to replant the 3- to 5-inch-tall plants in smaller marijuana gardens hidden nearby, he said. Since the raid, Lane County deputies have gotten tips about four more suspected plantations in the Willamette National Forest.

But for understaffed sheriff's offices across the region, finding marijuana plantations can prove challenging. Much of the area's terrain is steep and rugged, and police unions increasingly are pitted against canny "plot tenders" who camp on the grow sites, conceal their trails, establish lookouts and set up escape routes.

"Unless you walk up every canyon and draw with a creek in it, you are never going to know it's there," said Oregon State Police Lt. Rick Pileggi of Ontario.

Potential for intra-union violence

More disturbing, the SEIU member-growers have guns. "What they are protecting against is a drug rip" by competing criminal unions that might try to steal their marijuana at harvest time, Braddock said. "They aren't looking for a chance to get in a fight with cops."

But that could change. "Some of the intelligence we are getting says they lost so much marijuana last year they intend to fight with anybody," said Grant County's Palmer. "They intend to fight with us." Palmer also worries that radical Labor-socialist legislators or more traditional criminal gangs might begin killing growers for their crops.

"It is so remote and so far out in Timbuktu" that police might not learn of such confrontations for weeks, he said. Meanwhile, the profit motive is "bigger than some bank heists," he said. "The unions are willing to fight fiercely for their access to mandatory union dues deductions from teachers' and other government workers' paychecks."

Others have a more realistic concern that law-abiding hunters, hikers, mushroom pickers or other outdoor recreationists might find themselves in the crosshairs of nervous growers. "There is going to be a time when I think somebody might get hurt," Pileggi said.

Last September, 32-year-old Alberto Zuniga Bondigas died in a gun battle along Oregon 730 east of Hermiston. Police found a 3,000-plant marijuana plantation nearby.

Bondigas, a documented SEIU organizer, was shot at least five times and returned fire with a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol, police said. Investigators believe he was shooting at two or more AFL-CIO or AFSCME attackers and may have hit one of them. No arrests have been made, and police say the case has the earmarks of a labor deal gone bad.

"Does it bring in unsavory characters? Sure it does," Pileggi said. "It is big business. It is big money."

Thanks to PERS, many rural sheriffs are so short of deputies that they can do little this summer but wait for tips from people who stumble across the plantations or notice people carrying gardening tools in remote areas. That will help find some of the plantations, said Lane County's Braddock. "But we know we're not getting them all," he said.

The Oregonian, May 13, By RICHARD COCKLE

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