Oklahoma works to smoke out illegal marijuana operations

Armed henchmen patrolling the perimeter of buildings, mysterious gunshots in the distance, suspicious airplane activity, a crime boss calling, pulling the strings from afar. It sounds like scenes from an epic crime drama, but for Oklahomans it is their worst nightmare and illegal marijuana production is at the root.

This ordeal began in 2018 when Oklahomans passed a state question to legalize medical marijuana, thus opening the flood gates for the plant to be grown in the state. Mark Woodward, spokesperson for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics, said 2018 and 2019 were mostly uneventful as far as illegal marijuana production.

“When you have a license from us, it is to ensure that business guards against theft,” he said. “We’re simply looking at their security features, so it can’t be easily compromised by someone who would want to steal marijuana. Mostly it was a few violators here and there that didn’t have a fence that was high enough to meet the requirements.”

However, when the pandemic hit in 2020, everything changed. The OBN began to see an increasing number of people from outside Oklahoma purchasing land and applying for marijuana licenses.

“A lot of states were locked down during the pandemic so many criminal organizations couldn’t move their workers and plants during the pandemic,” he said. “Oklahoma was an open state and our land is a fraction of what it costs in California, so they could save hundreds of thousands of dollars by buying it up and moving their farms here.”

Additionally, Oklahoma marijuana licenses are the cheapest in the country—only $3,000 total. Woodward said $100,000 is the regional average, but in some states, it is over $100,000 for a license depending on the size of the farm. Furthermore, qualifying for an Oklahoma license is straightforward on the surface. The applicant only needs to pass a background check of no criminal conviction in the past two years and no felonies in the last five years.

Woodward said some Oklahoma entities were even advertising for marijuana growers to come to Oklahoma and they would help them obtain a license illegally. Oklahoma’s law states 75% of the ownership in a marijuana farm has to be someone who has been living in Oklahoma for at least two years. To skirt this rule, Woodward said law firms and other entitles were charging a fee to find individuals who meet that criteria to sign their name on the application.

“As of right now, I can say of the 6,500 or so licensed grow facilities in Oklahoma, close to 3,000 are under investigation for either growing for the black market, obtaining their license by fraud or in most cases, both,” he said.

More than marijuana

To some, marijuana seems harmless. After all, it is a natural plant that can be found in roadside ditches and pastures, but Woodward said the problem in Oklahoma is much more complex.

“This goes far beyond, ‘It’s just marijuana, what’s the big deal,’” Woodward explained. “It’s definitely more than some knuckleheads out here that can’t follow the law. These are violent criminal worldwide organizations who moved their marijuana operations to our state. They’re moving people, weapons, fentanyl and heroine. They also deal in high-grade marijuana and the money that is made by selling on the black market is not just going back into their marijuana business, it is going into funding these criminal—and in many cases terrorist—organizations around the world. There’s a dark side to this, regardless of whether marijuana is medicine or not, you can’t ignore the crime component that comes with it.”

Woodward said the OBN tried to campaign against the legalization of medical marijuana because it had seen what happened in California with organized crime and the Mexican cartels when it became the first state to legalize it for medical use in 1996. He said the only element the bureau was not expecting was from China. Woodward said 70% to 75% of farms under investigation right now are operated by Chinese crime syndicates. The rest of the illegal operations are controlled by Mexican, Armenian, Bulgarian, Russian and even Syrian organizations.

“We’ve tied some of the criminal activity of these farms and these investment groups to people who are very well known among our intelligence community as national security threats to this country,” he said.

The opening of the southern border has also contributed to the ease of smuggling in illegal immigrants to operate these farms, according to Woodward. This has made it easy for criminals to conduct labor trafficking for the farms, with the employees living in deplorable conditions. Woodward said sex trafficking tied to prostitution is often connected to these farms as well. Unfortunately, the crimes connected to these farms have also led to murders. In November 2022, in rural Kingfisher County, Oklahoma, a Chinese man is accused of committing a quadruple homicide at a grow house. A fifth person was wounded, but survived and was able to tell authorities who committed the murders at Chinese-run farm.

“This was an execution on four workers at a marijuana farm for failing to pay a debt they owed,” Woodward explained. “This is just one we know about because the killer left a witness. In most cases, workers would never be missed because they’re undocumented.”

Effects on rural Oklahoma

Illegal marijuana farms are an issue across the entire state, from warehouses in downtown Tulsa and Oklahoma City to farmland in the Panhandle being converted to grow operations and even old schools and nursing homes.

“These criminal organizations would have realtors find out who was upside down on their property and more likely to sell,” Woodward said. “That may be a family that has had a family farm for three to four generations and might not be willing to sell, but if someone shows up on their front porch and offers them four times the value of the land, suddenly it becomes a financial lifeline for a struggling family.”

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Criminal organizations over-paying on land has also driven up real estate prices and taxes, making it more difficult for farmers to purchase agricultural land. Furthermore, the electricity and water requirements needed to operate large farms are extreme and straining the capabilities of rural Oklahoma. With the severe drought Oklahoma is still trying to dig itself out of, marijuana farms have only exasperated the depletion of the water table.

“One plant can require up to a gallon of water a day and some of these farms have 40,000 to 60,000 plants,” Woodward said. “Our rural water districts have been really concerned that they won’t be able to handle that strain consistently.”

As far as electricity, one farm can require the same amount of electricity needed to power a small town, Woodward said. They use the power for lights, humidifiers and swamp coolers that run 24 hours a day. Furthermore, many farmers and ranchers say they have had water and electricity stolen to run these mega grow houses.

“People have had their farm ponds drained by pumps or these criminals will go into the city and hook up a rig to fire hydrants and steal water,” Woodward explained.

Woodward said illegal marijuana farms often participate in environmental contamination as well. Protecting the environment is not a priority to them and they will allow pesticides and herbicides to drain into creeks and ponds.

“Human waste is another issue,” Woodward said. “A lot of the farms don’t have plumbing, and if you’ve got 50 workers, that’s a lot of human waste that is being dumped.”

The concern in rural Oklahoma is palpable and the OBN receives three to four emails, calls and Facebook direct messages from residents every day.

Aside from the rural citizens, the illegal marijuana activity has put extra pressure on local law enforcement agencies straining their resources. They are low on manpower and receiving an abundance of calls about suspicious activity that they must juggle with the other responsibilities of their office. Furthermore, the illegal marijuana farms have ruined the marijuana industry for those who have legally obtained licenses in Oklahoma.

“When the black market can grow it cheap and sell it untaxed, versus a legitimate grower that has to pay fair wages, insurance and following regulations that cut into their profits, it is absolutely devastating to the legitimate marijuana community,” he said.

Takin’ care of business

The OBN has made great strides to control illegal marijuana farms in the last couple years and Woodward said the agency has shut down over 800 farms and made over 200 arrests. Additionally, two law firms have been indicted by multi-county grand juries for creating straw ownerships and many more are under investigation. Woodward said the largest raid thus far was on February 2022 when the OBN served warrants on nine grow houses and three residences simultaneously. That case is ongoing, but 17 arrest warrants have been issued for people in Oklahoma, California and Texas in connection with the investigation. Woodward said an estimated 100,000 plants and thousands of pounds of bulk processed marijuana were seized during these raids on illegal Chinese farms.

The largest single raid of a shipment occurred on April 14, 2023, when a semi-truck was discovered to have 7,000 pounds of marijuana hidden in CCTV camera equipment boxes. This truck was moving marijuana from a warehouse distribution center in Oklahoma City and heading to New York and New Jersey. That investigation is also ongoing.

“That was just one shipment, so that speaks volumes to how much is leaving Oklahoma,” Woodward said. “That equates to about $28 million.”

Woodward said Oklahoma is cracking down on these illegal operations and he hopes with persistence and changes in regulations that Oklahoma can drive out this unwanted criminal element.

“New licenses and renewal are now under a microscope,” he said. “It’s not as easy to get a license in Oklahoma like it was three years ago. We are denying many licenses and we are opening more criminal investigations. We are doing farm raids every day and we are absolutely seeing the results of criminal investigations paying off.”

He said OBN is now requiring face-to-face interviews for people applying for licenses and oftentimes when they try to schedule the interview, the applicant withdraws the request for a license.

“That speaks volumes. We’re shutting them down before they can even get started.”

Woodward advises Oklahomans to be patient if they have concerns about possible illegal activity as building cases against these farms is time consuming.

“We don’t want them to expect us to drop everything and come out immediately,” he said. “These things take time to prove because they are very good at hiding what they do. And most of the time the farm only includes workers and plants. It’s the people behind the farm who are often in Los Angeles or New York and they’re tied to 400 farms around the state. We want to shut down the entire criminal organization, not just one farm because they can replace those workers and plants in a short time and we will have made no difference in their business. We’re trying to break this reputation that we’ve had for five years that Oklahoma is the wild West and anyone can come here and grow.”

Lacey Vilhauer can be reached at 620-227-1871 or [email protected].