The Cannabis Black Market: Illegal vs Illegal vs Illegal

September 1, 2019

It is easy to cast villains in California’s battle against Black Market Cannabis products.  However, the current general and sweeping approach to classifying illegal operations is counterproductive, ineffective and generates ill-will.  Regulators and law enforcement should take notice; there are really three different levels of illegal in the market today.

The really bad dudes are sponsored by the international crime cartels and establish “grows” in our National Forests and Parks.  Others rent or buy houses for to grow marijuana. These growers are just dangerous in every single aspect of their operations.  They use the most dangerous poisons know to man to protect their crops.  Not only do they kill pests, but also kill many of the other animals in the region to the point that some apex predators are becoming critically endangered, like the Pacific Fisher.  The poison application is so heavy and potent that one Mendocino Sheriff’s Deputy had to be treated for chemical exposure for two weeks just from touching the plants while cutting down an illegal grow operation. 

They are heavily armed, sometimes with military assault rifles. In addition to arms, they create traps and other dangerous obstacles in public forests. After seeing the effectiveness of dogs used in drug enforcement, cartel operations have started buying their own attack dogs from agencies that train dogs for law enforcement agencies. In addition to guns, booby-traps, and poisons, law enforcement officers now have to deal with vicious dogs that could attack when they entire an illegal grow area in our National Forests. 

In addition, the workers apprehended at cartel-sponsored grows reported that they are paid $15,000 to $20,000 for a season.  They are told to degrade and destroy the environment in order to produce more cannabis economically.  They illegally cut down trees, dig large containment ponds, divert water from streams that are critical to the forests, especially during the dry season, and shoot any animals that have not been poisoned.

Next, there are the just bad dudes, not as bad as the really bad dudes, but illegal and detrimental just the same.  They generally have a corporate volume-based approach to growing, they use fertilizer, legal pesticides, and seek volume at the expense of product quality. The bad dudes operate more on private land that they purchase or lease.  Still the land is often located in environmentally sensitive areas and these operators are not what most would call “good stewards” of the land.  They do not have licenses or permits to alter the environment.  They also cut down trees, bulldoze the land, divert water and use strong fertilizers to increase their yield.  They do not obtain the proper licenses because they are rebels and it does not pay to go through all of the hoops to legally grow marijuana.  Many are anti-government, anti-establishment, live-off-the-grid type of people.

Finally, there are the “craft growers” gone wrong.  Many of these growers supplied marijuana products to the medical marijuana market.  They have been growing for years, are good stewards of the land, they use natural fertilizers and practice environmentally safe methods for pest control.  They strive to develop a product that is safe and expresses the elements of the land.  In general, they would like to grow legally but the cost is exorbitant, they would risk borrowing money and would lose their operation in a bad year.  Between the Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC) and the EPA, they are generally faced with an almost insurmountable and unaffordable challenge from California’s bureaucracy.

The problem is that all three groups are generally lumped together for regulatory and law enforcement actions.  This has two unfortunate results.  First, non-cannabis locals become outraged at strong-handed law enforcement actions during enforcement operations, even against the “craft growers.” They show up at mom and pop grocery stores in military assault vehicles.  Mendocino law enforcement was particularly criticized for heavy-handed operations this summer during “Operation Clean Up.  

Second, the “craft marijuana” sector generally has the view that law enforcement and state agencies, like the BCC, are out to get the “mom and pop” grower and that they do not enforce the law when it comes to corporate growers because the “mom and pop” operations do not have the financial power to support the politician’s reelection campaigns and that the law enforcement agencies are seeking to eliminate smaller operations to make room for corporate clients.  This politically damages the entire legalization effort with the “craft growers”, the group that should benefit the most from legalization and the group that should be a the forefront of the entire process.

The state governments could do a lot more to help the small growers so that they do not have to resort to growing marijuana illegally.  First, they could provide mom and pop operations with greater support, such as marketing workshops.  In addition, state governments could do a lot to streamline the process for smaller growers who tend to have a smaller environmental footprint, they do not build big ponds for water and use environmentally responsible cultivation techniques, such as compost for fertilizer. The State of California is an example, they just past Assembly Bill 97 on July 1, 2019 that states that commercial cannabis applicants are no longer required to have held a temporary license to be eligible for a provisional cannabis license.  Finally, one new idea that is growing in California is to develop appellations like the wine industry so that small “craft growers” could more effectively market their brand.  Hopefully, this would help the mom and pop operations escape the growing law enforcement operations against Black Market Cannabis.