Bust of Fresno “Smoke Session” Offers Sneak Peek Into Illicit Market

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A recent raid in California offers clues to how the state may combat the cannabis black market moving forward.

Words are a powerful weapon in the world of weed.

As history tells us, even the etymology of “marijuana” itself comes from racist origins. Perhaps more benign but nonetheless relevant is how we refer to cannabis sales that occur outside the purview of the law. Options range from insidious-sounding terms like “black” or “illicit” to more neutral choices like “illegal” or simply “unregulated.”

The point of shining a spotlight on this varied vocabulary is to underscore how vague the public’s understanding of the unregulated market remains. Given the qualifying demographic of outlaw growers runs the gamut from old-school Emerald Triangle veterans unwilling to trade their profits for tax debt to what basically amounts to cannabis crime syndicates, being hazy on the details is entirely understandable.

Regardless, arguments in favor of a legalized market hold no weight if those being persuaded fail to understand what the unregulated market — at least in California — actually looks like.

One such prominent example is the VAPI crisis that stole headlines for much of 2019. Though ultimately concluded to be the result of illicit vape cartridges not sold through legal channels, the damage wrought by assumption of guilt on the part of permitted operators was done. Vape sales plummeted, seismically shifting the projections for a major new product category within the industry.

Last month saw another example in the form of a fire at the Los Angeles distributor Smoke Tokes. While some were quick to connect the international distributor and wholesaler of smoking and vaping products with illicit activity and the cannabis industry in general, ties to either failed to materialize.

This week, however, a raid conducted by California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC) has provided some actual details on how buyers and sellers in the illegal weed trade presently operate.

What the BCC busted in Fresno County is being described as a “smoke session.” In essence, the concept finds growers and buyers holding what amounts to an illegal weed fair to sample products and make purchases. The raid is likely only the first of many to come, according to BCC communications chief Alex Traverso, who discussed the bust with Marijuana Business Daily (MBD).

Traverso also confirmed that the “smoke session” was basically a farmer’s market, noting that “at least seven different vendors were identified” during the raid, which took place on July 14.

The total haul the BCC came away with is also detailed. In total, authorities reportedly seized “almost 40 pounds of marijuana flower, nearly 94 pounds of cannabis concentrates, a little over $2,000 in cash, and six illegal firearms.” In a post to the bureau’s official Twitter account, the BCC estimated that the total value of the confiscated goods they amassed was over $700,000.

Beyond the immediate ramifications of the BCC’s Fresno bust, the action itself speaks loudly about California’s intent when it comes to prioritizing eradication of the unregulated market. It’s one thing to go on WeedMaps and find retail operations lacking their paperwork. It’s quite another to follow a lead and dedicate the resources to busting a rural meet-up of illegal cannabis farmers and dealers.

If we accept the BCC’s actions as indicative of the aggressiveness with which the state is prepared to tackle the cannabis black market, then it’s possible there may be real change afoot. Remember that in California, black market sales accounted for $8.7 billion last year. Legal sales? Only $3.1 billion by comparison, according to data from BDS Analytics and Arcview Market Research.

At the same time, it still feels weird to equate the idea of a bunch of people gathered in a field to smoke and buy weed with a criminal enterprise. That weapons were present is definitely alarming, but overall, public perception must align itself with the reality of what’s happening. Yes, there are big-scale players doing palpable harm. However, arresting those selling weed outside of the system is clearly not the answer either.

Instead, renewed interest from California officials to eradicate bad actors must be paired with investments in resources and education that will allow all interested parties a seat at the table in the legal industry. Only then can we return the concept of “smoke sessions” to its rightful place: as a ceremony to be shared with those we love and the plant we cherish.

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