Believe it or not, adult recreational use cannabis has been legal in California for nearly four years. Over that short period of time, we’ve watched as an entire new industry has taken form, ushering in a wave of unique brands, technology, scientific discoveries, and mainstream acceptance for cannabis and its culture.
One thing, however, that has yet to show much change following the introduction of a recreational cannabis market is the continued presence and success of its unregulated counterpart.
Despite the fact that legal cannabis businesses pay substantial taxes, lack access to a number of business services available to peers in other fields, and adhere to a complex, wide-ranging set of regulations to stay in compliance, they currently must compete not only with each other but with a still-thriving illicit market as well.
The main selling point for buying pot off the books is, of course, price. Aside from skipping out on the tax element of the equation, the reason for lower prices also stems from the fact that unregulated cannabis is not being put through rigorous (or any) testing to confirm its safety. Unsurprisingly, those on the right side of the law have long called for more direct measures to mitigate this major threat to the long-term success of a legal cannabis industry.
Perhaps their voices are at last being heard, as the last several weeks have brought with them a flurry of activity on the subject of clamping down on unregulated cannabis grows in California.
On October 1, law enforcement officials in the San Francisco Bay Area detailed a recent bust that may qualify as the largest in the region’s history. Working off a tip provided 18 months ago, a team of Alameda County sheriff’s deputies raided a number of locations that yielded a treasure trove of cannabis and other high-value items.
The San Francisco Chronicle’s Rachel Swan detailed the haul, which included “gym bags stuffed with cash, 40 Rolexes and $1,000 bottles of wine.” The main target, of course, was cannabis — and they struck gold on that count too.
“In all,” Swan reported, “law enforcement seized about 100,000 marijuana plants, a number that could balloon to 500,000 by the time they tally all the evidence… Additionally, deputies took $10 million in cash and assets, 12,000 pounds of processed product ready for distribution, and more than a dozen weapons, including handguns, rifles and shotguns.”
As of publication, several arrests had been made but further details on those responsible for the operation had yet to be released.
What’s truly staggering is the scale of the whole thing. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, leaders likely poured “millions of dollars into infrastructure” into this effort, which took the form of “outfitting buildings with generators and massive air filters” as well as “an elaborate system of digital timers and switches for the water and lights.”
To underscore the size of what was going down at these East Bay grows in San Leandro and Oakland, note that sheriff’s deputies ultimately loaded 37.6 tons of recovered cannabis onto a “convoy” of tractor trailers to take it away. Oh, and that was after they had to turn to chainsaws and gas-powered hedge trimmers to chop down the entirety of the crop for transport.
This action speaks to a notable uptick in enforcement efforts across California in the years since cannabis was approved for adult recreational use. How much? According to Andrew Sheeler of the Sacramento Bee, the amount of illicit cannabis plants being seized and eradicated has doubled over the past four years:
“California Attorney General Rob Bonta on Monday [Oct. 18] announced that the California Department of Justice’s annual Campaign Against Marijuana Planting program, also known as CAMP, had eradicated nearly 1.2 million illegally cultivated cannabis plants this year. That’s up from 614,267 plants seized in 2018, the first year that recreational marijuana was legal in California.”
Sheeler continues by noting that the CAMP program “has steadily ratcheted up enforcement over the years, with 953,459 plants eradicated in 2019 and 1.1 million plants destroyed in 2020.” Notably, these numbers pale in comparison to the earlier days of “peak enforcement,” such as the 4.5 million plants reportedly destroyed in 2009. Regardless, the last four years have nonetheless brought with them a substantial increase in such efforts, which is unquestionably music to the ears of the state’s legally licensed cannabis cultivators.
MJBizDaily recently quantified the matter by reporting that California’s illicit market cannabis industry is currently estimated to generate $8 billion in annual sales, while the legal market, by contrast, brings in $4.4 billion. That’s a two-to-one disparity in favor of those operating outside of the law, which is why some cultivators in California’s Nevada County are now turning to drones to get the job done.
It’s true! Cannabis.net was the first with the scoop, noting that “California’s Nevada county cannabis alliance announced that its next course of action to locate illegal cannabis farms will include the deployment of drones.” Conceived as a means of thwarting concealment efforts by unregulated farms within fences, locked gates, and other assorted visual barriers, a pilot program utilizing UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System) is apparently set to get underway next spring.
Such drastic measures may seem extreme, but with federal legalization and the prospect of interstate commerce still lurking on the as-yet-undetermined horizon, establishing a viable footprint in the state market is fast becoming a professional life-or-death necessity. As a result, we can expect enforcement efforts against the unregulated market, which continues to outsell its legal counterpart by a sizeable margin, to increase in scale and scope in the absence of a better solution.