There are a few weeks remaining in 2019, and California law enforcement agencies have confiscated illegally-grown marijuana plants worth more than $1.5 billion.
What makes that fact so significant is the $1.5 billion is about what California’s entire legal marijuana market has generated. When wholesale costs are factored in, the real value of the legal and illegal crops is $3 billion each.
Wasn’t the passage of Proposition 64 last November supposed to stifle the illegal marijuana trade? At least that was part of the sales pitch to voters.
A brief history lesson is in order: The push to legalize marijuana for personal use started in the early 1970s, but the first successful effort came with voter approval of the Compassionate Use Act, Prop. 215, in 1996, the nation’s first medical marijuana initiative to win voter support.
Among the intended benefits of California’s slow, methodical legalization process was elimination of the marijuana black market. Instead, that illegal market has flourished, a point underlined by this week’s announced seizure totals.
Here’s another collateral fact: It wasn’t just marijuana plants taken in the police raids. Also confiscated were 168 weapons — presumably used by illegal growers to protect their investment against poachers — and about 150 people were arrested.
The enforcement strong-arm methods seem necessary, considering that a sheriff’s deputy in Northern California was murdered while responding to a call about a possible illegal grow farm.
The motivation for illegal growers is that they can market their products without the burden of paying state taxes, thus keeping the prices on the black market lower than in legal dispensaries.
Another collateral issue is the rate at which state and local law enforcement agencies adapt to the need to crack down on illegal growers. California’s black-market marijuana industry is so large it requires an abundance of law enforcement boots on the ground, and most agencies just were not prepared for the unexpected surge in illegal grower activity.
Just about every new law brings with it intended and unintended consequences, and perhaps too many people hoped legalizing marijuana would eliminate the unwanted — and often dangerous — black market operations.
The fact is that in a majority of states, marijuana growing and use remains against the law, and that means states such as California continue to be suppliers to users in those other states.
Many Californians, including lawmakers, approached the legalization issue with eyes wide open, knowing there could, and probably would be problems. What they really didn’t anticipate is that Prop. 64 gave local jurisdictions authority to set certain rules, and that local elected officials continue to have a difficult time deciding what those rules should be.
Politicians at every level face divided constituencies, and that is certainly the case regarding the issuing of permits for cannabis farms and marijuana dispensaries. If a policy maker goes against the wishes of his or her constituents, that person can expect to be gone from office in the next election.
Santa Barbara County and its local jurisdictions are struggling with such problems. More than a year after Prop. 64’s passage, marijuana rules are a patchwork throughout the county.
We’re not sure how this problem can be resolved, other than somehow unifying the rules. We are sure that something must be done, if state and local governments want to eliminate black-market operations.
If they don’t, the tax-revenue benefits of legalizing marijuana will be devoured by black-market profiteers undermining the legal market, and law enforcement agencies spending big bucks trying to stop them.
Obviously, legalizing marijuana remains a work in progress.