Orange County, California is a Massive Marijuana Desert. Why?

Even though California, as a whole, tends to produce more marijuana than its population consumes, there are places within the state that are being called ‘marijuana deserts’. Orange County is one of these places.

Orange County, California is bordered by the counties of Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside, and San Diego.

In 2016, when the state ballot to legalize recreational marijuana was put to a vote, 52% of Orange County residents voted in favor of Proposition 64.

However, despite that fact, the county remains a veritable cannabis desert, with only 117 marijuana businesses being opened in the entire county. Add to this, the fact that of the 34 incorporated cities with county limits, only a single city has allowed cannabis retail stores to operate within city limits.

But why is California’s third-most populous county icing out the legal marijuana business, despite its continued support throughout the rest of the state? That’s a good question.

Marijuana? Not In My Backyard

Nimbyism is one of the biggest players in the game of banning the recreational marijuana industry in Orange County. As mentioned earlier, the county as a whole voted in favor of Prop 64 – The Adult Use of Marijuana Act in 2016. And two of the county’s cities, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach, overwhelmingly voted to approve the initiative, yet, both of those cities have opted to ban marijuana businesses within city limits.

This is a classic case of Not In My Backyard, where residents are in favor of something happening, as long as it’s not happening to them or around them. They are just two of the 25 cities in Orange County that approved Proposition 64 in 2016, however, almost six years later, only a handful of those 25 cities have allowed commercial cannabis programs to open. 

But Nimbyism isn’t the only thing that’s keeping Orange County a marijuana desert. Political leaning also has a role to play, says MJBizDaily, “Orange County has been a Republican stronghold for decades, and many of its cities still lean socially conservative, such as Garden Grove and Westminster, home to the largest Vietnamese communities in the nation.”

What has been happening is that though marijuana has been legalized at the state level, the state gives local jurisdictions total control over the cannabis industries in their jurisdictions. This is what has happened in Orange County. So even though, at a state level, cannabis is legal in California, local jurisdictions have banned in their cities and counties. 

Forbes gives a brief explanation, “Almost every state that has legalized weed has also given the local jurisdictions total control over it. This has been one of the hallmark failures of legalization policy. And it keeps happening with each new state that legalizes cannabis, New Jersey being the latest to succumb to this bad public policy.”

The quote continues, “The local people are given the power to ban or limit licensing of cannabis in the very community that voted for legalization. Elected officials (who are risk-averse and ignorant of cannabis) and a loud but small minority (the “Not in My BackYard” folks, or NIMBYs) ban dispensaries.

They ban delivery. They ban cultivation and manufacturing. And worst of all, they ban safe and affordable access to legal weed and good jobs in their communities.”

This is why so few cities within Orange County have allowed for marijuana-based businesses to open up. Some, such as Irvine, have even gone so far as to ban all commercial activities within its borders, including delivery. 

The problem, however, is that if prohibition throughout history has taught us anything, it’s that these things are going to happen whether legalized or not. Unfortunately, this is exactly what’s happening in California and other states at the moment, and illegal cannabis farms are having a negative impact on the environment. 

Illegal Pot Farms Devastating To The Environment

There’s a good chance you remember the massive Dolan Fire near Big Sur in August of 2020, during which 125,000 acres of forest were destroyed, along with 15 homes. 14 firefighters were also injured during the forest fire, and 14 endangered California Condors were killed.

That fire was started by illegal marijuana growers.

But devastating forest fires aren’t the only consequence of illegal cannabis farms cropping up in the forests of California. The illegal grow operations divert billions of gallons of water from local communities. In a state that is no stranger to droughts, this water diversion can have catastrophic effects. 

Illegal pesticides containing rat poison and insecticides, made in Mexico in formulations higher than what is considered safe, and legal, in the US, are often used to help plants grow in these illegal farms, which not only poison the animals in these forests, but also have the potential to seep into the groundwater, which can harm communities.

“What’s more,” says the OC Register, “the labels are printed in Spanish and lack a code that would allow poison officials to identify it in a database in case someone is exposed and needed treatment.”

Related Reading: The Pesticide Problem: Shining a Light on Some Shady California Cannabis Testing

Litter found in these illegal grow sites also poses problems to local wildlife. Beer cans can be easily removed, but containers that once housed unknown chemicals cannot. And as these chemicals seep into the soil around them, they have the potential to cause untold destruction on the flora and fauna surrounding them. 

It’s anyone’s guess why cities and counties in weed-legal states continue to hold out on local legalization, though the above mentioned reasons are just a few of our theories.

What we do know is that these holdouts are causing places like Orange County, California to become marijuana deserts, where lawlessness has the potential to cause far more harm than the local jurisdictions believe they are saving their towns from. 

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