The Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics is inundated with crime tips related to medical cannabis businesses — including some in Cleveland County — and a local official is asking the legislature for help.
Cleveland County Commissioner District 1 Rod Cleveland plans to ask the state legislature to study public safety and permitting requirements for medical cannabis agriculture and processing facilities, he told The Transcript Monday.
During the county’s final Budget Board meeting, legislative liaison for the county Jacob McHughes invited the commission to submit topics for legislative interim studies.
Cleveland was concerned about criminal operations and fire hazards, to name a few issues that have come up in talks with other counties across the state. Most counties like Cleveland County do not have zoning laws in unincorporated areas, but some issue business permits, he said.
“We need to get clarity on the county’s responsibility as to signing off on permitting, and what we can do to keep these things updated, such as a continual permit plus the permit fee. There’s nothing in statute that says we can collect the permit fee, but there’s nothing in guidance that tells us how much or justifying it,” Cleveland said.
He also hopes to see the legislature study the potential draw for organized criminal activity to cannabis facilities. Other county commissioners have expressed concern that international criminal activity has gained a foothold “through these facilities,” Cleveland said.
A spokesman for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics confirmed the commissioner’s concerns. Mark Woodward said the OBN is inundated with tips from residents, farmers and competitors being undercut by the black market.
Investigators have found some are internationally owned and illegally operating cannabis businesses or running criminal activity in connection to them.
“That has been the case of several ones where we find Chinese workers and Chinese ownership,” he said. “They’ve been tied to a criminal organization or more than one criminal organization that is moving 100% of the product out of state. We cannot trace a single plant even though they’ve got thousands of plants that they’ve grown and harvested.”
In one Chinese-owned cannabis farm, OBN discovered a prostitution ring for workers at a nearby house and the presence of ketamine, a similar drug to methamphetamines, Woodward said.
Others, including one in Cleveland County, are shut down for regulatory violations.
“We had one in Noble that was connected to a store in Moore last year called Ivy League,” Woodward said. “They had a facility that was too close to a school that ended up being shut down. I believe they shut down voluntarily in Moore, but we ended up finding out they were growing in a building down in Noble and that had no license whatsoever.”
The Transcript reached out to the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office for any information related to criminal complaints regarding cannabis facilities and any alerts the department may have received from state or federal law enforcement agencies.
CCSO spokesperson Mendi Brandon said the department has not received any criminal complaints, nor had it received any alerts from state or federal law enforcement agencies regarding the potential for such cases.
Unincorporated areas are attractive to cannabis farms and processing facilities, said James Fullingim, the state’s assistant fire marshal. Cannabis growth and processing facilities must submit building plans and consent to an inspection in order to obtain a building permit fee from the Oklahoma Fire Marshal’s Office.
Despite being inundated with floor plans and requests for inspections, Fullingim said his office is not getting as many requests as it should, and he believes he knows why.
“We think a lot of them are getting around the system — not necessarily intentionally, but they are going to a county and the county doesn’t tell them to get a building permit,” Fullingim said. “I don’t think they intend to be in business without one, they just aren’t aware of the procedures. Several counties now have passed resolutions that any building outside incorporated areas must have a permit from the Oklahoma State Fire Marshal’s Office prior to receiving a permit from the county.”
Woodward said he expects the state to attract criminal enterprise due to several factors, and believes that black market business will continue to be a threat to the survival of legitimate operators.
“They’re in competition without thousands of criminals who are all trying to take advantage of Oklahoma’s cheaper licenses, cheaper land and looser laws,” Woodward said. “So, they’re pouring in here from all over the U.S. to start growing illegally and meet the demands of the black market. It’s no secret that criminals are coming here to take advantage of our marijuana program.”