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Oklahoma Steps Up Enforcement As State Grapples With Influx Of Illegal Marijuana Grows

Oklahoma is seeing an influx of marijuana growers coming to the state, but many of them may not be legal, according to the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics.

Spokesman Mark Woodward says the bureau currently has 300-500 active investigations into suspicious grows, with more than three dozen facilities already shut down.

"We just cannot keep up with it," Woodward said. Many of these organizations are transnational and are operating out of countries in Asia and the Middle East.

"The most common practice ... is for these criminal organizations to come to Oklahoma, get completely licensed, they follow all the rules, so that they can fly under the radar," Woodward said. "But yet 100% of their product is going to the east coast and their money moved all over the world through money laundering."

That’s why the Bureau of Narcotics is building a team of agents to work on complex investigations in the state, using $5 million in funding from marijuana licensing fees, asauthorized by lawmakers this year.

"These are going to take complex, deep investigations to identify everyone and bring down these organizations there," Woodward said.

Sen. Jim Inhofe’s office is also requesting $4 million to fund the team. State lawmakers are aware of the issue. House Republicans signed a letterin March urging former Attorney General Mike Hunter to investigate the foreign land ownership.

"Citizens and foreign business entities (those formed under the law of a foreign country) can acquire title to real property in the United States, but this has been occurring at an alarming rate throughout our great State," the letter said.

Rural electric cooperatives are taking notice of the growing number of requests in their area. Logan Pleasant, director of engineering and operations at Lake Region Electric Cooperative, said the electric cooperative has been receiving hefty requests — some have been enough to fuel two Walmart supercenters.

With enough of these service requests, Pleasant said the co-op would have to expand its capacity. But he fears a decline in the marijuana boom may leave the co-op with too much to pay off, and not enough customers paying the bills.

“We could end up getting stuck with a lot of infrastructure that is being underutilized or not utilized at all, similar to the way that the boom and bust of the oil industry has an effect on the electric grid,” Pleasant said. “When the oil industry is booming, they're building electric lines all over the place … And then when the price of the barrel goes through the floor … they start capping off wells, they start shutting production down. And now you've got all these stranded assets out there that still have to be maintained but are no longer producing a return.”

Farmers are also seeing the effects of the marijuana boom. Oklahoma agriculture groups have formed the Medical Marijuana Impacts on Oklahoma Production Agriculture Task Force.

American Farmers & Ranchers, Oklahoma Agribusiness Retailers Association, Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, Oklahoma Agricultural Cooperative Council and the Oklahoma Farm Bureau joined forces to find solutions to the impacts of the marijuana industry in rural Oklahoma.

Scott Blubaugh, the president of the Oklahoma Farmers Union, said he’s received calls with concern about spraying pesticides near the operations, which often have large ventilation systems.

"It really makes it difficult for us to use a lot of our tools in the chemical world, in our weed control," Blubaugh said. "When those things can be sucked in through their ventilation system and then kills all of their plants in their grow houses … there’s a huge liability issue there."

Blubaugh also said farmers have been calling about facilities with high fences and armed guards, something not usually seen in rural Oklahoma.

"Our rural people just aren't used to having almost a military-like operation in their communities, in these backyards," Blubaugh said.

This report was produced by the Oklahoma Public Media Exchange, a collaboration of public media organizations. Help support collaborative journalism by donating at the link at the top of this webpage.

Seth Bodine joined KOSU in June 2020, focusing on agriculture and rural issues.
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