Just last year, California produced, at a bare minimum, 13.5 million pounds of ganja. It only consumed 2.5 million pounds, so it is growing five times what it is using. What happened to that extra marijuana in California? Experts say it is crossing state lines and ending up in states where marijuana remains illegal. As California readies itself for recreational sales, all that extra pot is becoming a problem.
Palmdale Republican and Assemblyman Tom Lackey said, “If we want to avoid intervention from the federal government, we need to do everything we can to crack down on illegal activity and prevent cannabis from being exported out of state.” The difference in production and consumption rates is among recent findings from a study commissioned by the Department of Food and Agriculture.
Under federal law, cannabis is still illegal. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is fighting hard for stricter enforcement, but because of restrictions placed on the Department of Justice under the Obama administration, the federal government has little authority to enforce laws in states that legalized medical marijuana.
In a 2013 memorandum introduced by then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole, states are able to avoid intervention by the federal government if they do everything in their power to stop severe pot offenses from occurring within their borders, such as selling to children, exporting to non-legal states or across state lines, and conducting activities on the black market.
Currently, the newly created California Bureau of Cannabis Control is busily drafting a regulatory environment to start issuing licenses for cultivation, distribution, and sales by the start of next year, and there are already rules in place expressly forbidding the export of cannabis to other states. However, it is not effective on its own and requires proper enforcement.
Last month, Lackey introduced legislation naming the California Highway Patrol as the lead state investigator of black market cannabis activities. A retired sergeant for the California Highway Patrol, Lackey says that there is currently no state police agency tasked specifically with drug enforcement. Policing is a combined effort of county and city officers and the Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement.
Up for debate early next year, when the Legislature returns in January to consider new measures, Lackey says that his bill will help prevent the exportation of cannabis. California’s pot exports are increasingly worrying police officers in other states. A Texas Department of Public Safety spokesperson said that Interstate 40, which joins the East and West coasts, “has become a major drug corridor.”
Early in August, in just one two-day period, highway troopers seized $2.5 million worth of pot from three vehicles traveling from California on the same stretch of Interstate 40, just east of Amarillo. The first was a man from Eureka driving to Memphis, Tennessee with 60 pounds of pot, worth $364,000, inside his Dodge Caravan.
The next unfortunate was a woman heading to Tulsa, Oklahoma, from Phelan, California: Police confiscated 69 pounds of pot worth $418,000, which they found in her minivan. Just three hours later, police stopped another minivan carrying 300 pounds of cannabis worth $1.8 million. The driver was transporting it to Tulsa in Oklahoma but from Fresno, California.
“Any amount of marijuana coming out of California and going through our state is a problem because it is not a legalized drug in Texas.” This is the sentiment of Lieutenant Bryan Witt of the Texas Department of Public Safety, who also warned, “If we catch anybody with any amount from California, they will be arrested. Our marijuana laws will be enforced.”
Officials in California are tackling the issue: They plan imposing regulations that would remove weed from the black market and ensure the safety of any sold legally. However, industry leaders remain concerned that they are not doing enough to address the surplus. As Executive Director of the California Growers Association, Hezekiah Allen, said at a recent cannabis conference, “We are producing too much.”
According to Allen, state-licensed cultivators “are going to have to scale back” and embark “on a painful downsizing curve.” Under the new legal system, farmers are preparing to reduce their crops. It has put other farmers, however, already out of business. Lori Ajax, executive director of the Bureau of Cannabis Control, worries that growers who do not get state licenses will stay in the black market.
Ajax said, “For right now, our goal is to get folks into the regulated market, as many as possible.” California is already the focus of much of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s efforts. Last year, federal, state and local enforcement agencies seized 5.3 million pot plants across the United States. Seventy percent came from California.
Just the year before last, officials seized over one million plants in the state of California alone, way surpassing even Kentucky, where officials seized approximately 500,000 cannabis plants in 2016. Last year, enforcement actions in California targeted 2,117 cultivation sites resulting in 2,002 arrests. In a Kentucky comparison, police only raided 869 grow sites and only arrested 691 people.
There are more people in California than in any other state in the nation. Its weather and climate are ideal for marijuana cultivation and its vast expanses of backcountry offer illegal sites the perfect hiding places. If California cannot stop illegal pot exports, or at least reduce them significantly, with regulation and enforcement, federal action is likely to increase across the state.
Melvin Patterson, spokesperson and agent for the DEA, gave this response to pot exports by states permitting it for recreational use, “I think you will see the DEA get a lot more aggressive.” He noted that it would certainly prosecute such cases more aggressively. However, California officials have brainstormed a few ways to stop state-licensed marijuana farms from exporting illegally.
According to Ajax, the Bureau of Cannabis Control will require full seed-to-sale monitoring of all marijuana in California. Every plant will have its own unique tracking number, which will make it easier for enforcement agencies to ensure it remains within the state and goes through legal sales processes. Ajax also noted that state taxes and regulations should not be so burdensome that they drive growers and sellers into the black market.
ERA Economics conducted the recent Department of Food and Agriculture-funded study, which discovered the difference in California’s production and consumption rates. The company fears that high taxes and strict regulations will “push cultivators into the illegal markets” without strong enforcement. The problem of overly enthusiastic growers is not unique to California, however.
Other states with liberal recreational use laws are also at risk of heightened federal interference, including Washington, Oregon, and Colorado. This is according to a new report by anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana. Its president, Kevin Sabet, said, “I do not think California lawmakers realize how difficult it is to put proper safeguards in place.”
Sabet also opined, “Right now, the posture in Sacramento seems to be tilted at allowing whatever the pot industry wants.” State officials claim awareness of the risks, saying they are attempting to create a regulatory system that will restrict illegal activity.
One of them, Ken Cooley, Assemblyman, and Democrat from Rancho Cordova, said, “If the feds see a serious export problem, they might feel that whatever we are doing in California is not enough.”