The state of California has always been a pioneer in the cannabis industry. They were the first to legalize medical marijuana, and they even legalized an adult-use market in 2016. But the legalization of cannabis has had some unintended consequences: illegal cannabis sales are still thriving in California.
In response, California lawmakers have established a new task force that will be responsible for investigating and prosecuting illegal operations, but many are wondering if this is truly the right solution.
The Truth About Illegal Cannabis In California
The truth about illegal cannabis farms is that they’re a public health hazard and human rights issue.
That’s the message from Karen Mouritsen, a Bureau of Land Management official who has spent years dealing with illegal cannabis farms on government land in California. The drug crop sites are often crude camps with no running water or sewers, where laborers live in squalor and use caustic pesticides to kill animals that might otherwise eat the growing plants. The pollution they leave behind has spread into downstream water supplies, and the pesticides can spread up through the food chain.
Clearly, organized crime and illegal growth is a problem: it hurts workers and the environment. However, the state’s solution of funnelling money into cop programs modeled after another ineffective task force is a terrible idea that deals with symptoms, not root causes.
Why The Illegal Market Is Thriving
Since recreational cannabis was legalized in 2016, illegal cannabis farms have been booming. In fact, California’s illegal market approaches $8 billion annually, which is nearly double the $5.3 billion earned by the legal market in 2021.
Local government opposition, high taxes, and competition from unlicensed businesses are complicating things. California law allows city leaders to shut out licensed cannabis enterprises and ban the sale of marijuana within city limits—which has left many cities with insufficient supply and caused others to turn to unlicensed shops that sell pot in defiance of state law.
The result is a perfect storm for an illegal market: not enough legal sites, really difficult to get approved for cannabis sales, it altogether makes the perfect conditions for a thriving illegal market.
What Is CAMP?
The Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP) is a multi-agency law enforcement task force managed by the California Department of Justice that has been in operation since 1983. It consists of more than 110 individual agencies and routinely deploys task forces to shut down illegal cannabis operations.
This year, CAMP recovered 184 weapons, removed nearly 67,000 pounds of cultivation infrastructure and eradicated over 1 million plants and 200,000 lbs of processed cannabis. The infrastructure included dams, water lines and containers of toxic chemicals such as carbofuran, methyl parathion and illegal fertilizers. Despite CAMP operating for almost 40 years now, illegal cannabis is still thriving in California, and their lack of success has been met with budget cuts and a lack of state-wide support.
Unfortunately, the budget taken from CAMP isn’t being funneled into anything useful like rehab programs for drug users, or pardons for convicts. No, instead, California has decided to form yet another police task force intended to target illegal cannabis activity.
EPIC Is Lame, Actually
It’s official: The California government has announced the formation of a new task force to combat illegal cannabis cultivation.
The California Department of Justice is calling it “EPIC,” which stands for Eradication and Prevention of Illicit Cannabis. What was formerly a 13-week seasonal program will now transition into a year-round task force, focusing on investigating and prosecuting civil and criminal cases related to environmental, economic and labor impacts from illegal cultivation.
The California DOJ says that it doesn’t want to just focus on cultivation, which is what CAMP does (California Campaign Against Marijuana Planting). They’re expanding their opp force, funnelling more money into police and state agents.
The government is so focused on catching illegal cannabis growers and distributors that they’ve lost sight of what’s really causing the problem.
California’s illegal cannabis market is booming, but instead of taking a look at the real causes of its success and working to change those conditions, they’re throwing money at a year-round task force that will put more people in jail, costing tax-payers even more.
This is a serious waste of money. Instead of creating more cops, they should be lowering barriers to entry and working to integrate existing illegal operations into the legal market. The government could even lower taxes on businesses, so they’re more incentivized to operate legally—if they spent less money on cops, they wouldn’t even lose any money.
We know why people turn to the black market: it’s cheaper and easier than buying from legal dispensaries. If California wants to stop people from growing their own cannabis illegally, then it needs to address these root issues rather than wasting time and money on an expensive task force that won’t solve anything anyway.
We know that the illegal market is a huge problem, but we think that the way to deal with it is through solutions like those we’ve outlined in this article—not by funding a carceral state that has never worked and never will.
The illegal cannabis market can be addressed without spending billions of dollars every year on prisons and police departments; there are ways forward other than just locking people up and hoping they’ll get better while they’re locked away from society.
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