A worker packages cannabis at the CMX Distribution facility in Costa Mesa, Calif. The center is a licensed medical marijuana distributor.CreditCreditJenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times
COSTA MESA, Calif. — In the forests of Northern California, raids by law enforcement officials continue to uncover illicit marijuana farms. In Southern California, hundreds of illegal delivery services and pot dispensaries, some of them registered as churches, serve a steady stream of customers. And in Mendocino County, north of San Francisco, the sheriff’s office recently raided an illegal cannabis production facility that was processing 500 pounds of marijuana a day.
It’s been a little more than a year since California legalized marijuana — the largest such experiment in the United States — but law enforcement officials say the unlicensed, illegal market is still thriving and in some areas has even expanded.
“There’s a lot of money to be made in the black market,” said Thomas D. Allman, the sheriff of Mendocino County, whose deputies seized cannabis oil worth more than $5 million in early April.
Legalization, Sheriff Allman said, “certainly didn’t put cops out of work.”
California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, has declared that illegal grows in Northern California “are getting worse, not better” and two months ago redeployed a contingent of National Guard troops stationed on the border with Mexico to go after illegal cannabis farms instead.
Stepped-up enforcement comes with a certain measure of irony — legalization was meant to open a new chapter for the state, free from the legacy of heavy policing and incarceration for minor infractions. Instead, there are new calls for a crackdown on illegal selling.
Conscious of the consequences that the war on drugs had on black and Latino communities, cities like Los Angeles today say they are wary of using criminal enforcement measures to police the illegal market and are unsure how to navigate this uncharted era.
The struggles of the licensed pot market in California are distinct from the experience of other states that have legalized cannabis in recent years. Sales in Colorado, Oregon and Washington grew well above 50 percent for each of the first three years of legalization, although Oregon now also has a large glut of pot.
But no other state has an illegal market on the scale of California’s, and those illicit sales are cannibalizing the revenue of licensed businesses and in some cases, experts say, forcing them out of business.
Entrepreneurs in the industry, which spent decades evading the law, are now turning to the law to demand the prosecution of unlicensed pot businesses.
Published: April 27, 2019
Founder & Interim Editor of L.A. Cannabis News