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California's illegal marijuana farms are at the centre of an unforeseen crime wave


The received wisdom is that by decriminalising, or even legalising, drugs criminality will fall away. In California, where cannabis was legalised less than a decade* ago, that is demonstrably untrue.

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Jeremiah LaRue, the Sheriff of Siskiyou County, a large district in California, is getting fed up with the lawlessness that has followed the legalisation of cannabis. He blames poor legislation at state level and the decision to make enforcement a matter for the counties. In particular, he draws attention to the fact that there are no effective penalties for illegally growing the crop. He says that cultivation breaks many environmental laws in addition to the laws on growing weed.

California's state government says "California became the first state to allow medicinal cannabis use when voters passed the Compassionate Use Act in 1996. Today, cannabis is legal in California for both medicinal and adult (recreational) use. The cannabis industry is strictly regulated to make sure: Businesses operate safely, Products are contaminant-free and labelled to inform purchasers and Cannabis is kept away from children."

Growing cannabis is legal but there are conditions for the commercial cultivation. Farmers (why do they call them "growers"?) are subject to licensing, approval of location and, of course, taxation. They must comply with California's environmental and labour laws. And if anyone breaks the law, the maximum penalty is USD500. After all, big farms will be legal and only the people growing plants in a greenhouse in their back garden would be a problem, right?

Not right.

In some parts of California, illegal cannabis farming has expanded beyond the back garden or, even, a small-holding. Some is on private land but it appears as if at least as much is on public land. There's not much chance of getting caught: the Sheriff has only two staff in his cannabis enforcement unit. It's not a popular job because the farmers are not laid back stoners, they are men with guns and they are very alert.

So alert, in fact, that they operate illegal armed roadblocks keeping lawful travellers out of districts they control.

The sheriff is clear: he isn't trying to go behind the letter or the spirit of the law: if cannabis is legal, then cannabis is legal. But where there is illegal conduct, then that's illegal and it's his job to deal with that.

But, he says, he can't be effective. When he finds evidence of illegal use of various chemicals, some of which are used in an illegal fashion and others that are outright illegal in California, he can't get buy-in from the state which is responsible for enforcing those offences.

Forced labour is widely used, with threats to individuals and their families the preferred enforcement method. And if that sounds suspiciously like you've heard of south of the border, you're right: the profits from cannabis cultivation remain enormous and that's attracted Mexican cartels. There has been at least one case of a user visiting a farm to buy supplies and being murdered.

It's not as if the situation is secret. More than a year ago the Los Angeles Times reported that the problem reached a crisis in 2013, less than a decade after the legalisation of the crop. That crisis was that the farms have a huge demand for water - which they steal. How big is the problem? Well the LA Times decided, a few months ago to review it. "Cannabis operations are easy to spot in satellite imagery. Plastic-covered hoop houses and plots of individual dark-green plants are distinctive and hard to miss, even more so in clear-cut tracts of forest or vast expanses of desert, the paper said on 8th September last year and it obtained and reviewed more than 2,000 images and compared them to data from several years earlier.

"In every place [we] looked, illicit cannabis production had increased since California reduced criminal penalties for unlicensed operations as part of legalisation. There was little variation between areas that licensed cannabis and those that banned it. The findings suggest efforts to draw cannabis growers into the legal market are foundering. All but 68 of the 782 cannabis farms below Post Mountain in Trinity County, for instance, lacked a state licence as of early 2022."

The California Water Resources Control Board has a tool for analysing satellite photos and it can identify and mark illegal farms. But days after it was shown to the Govenor, Gavin Newsome but he wasn't there. Instead, he sent his then adviser on cannabis matters, Nicole Elliott, a strong advocate for the liberalisation of cannabis. According to the LA Times, just days after that meeting, the so-called "Canna-vision" project was cancelled.

The severity of the results of the water theft were explained in May, 2022 "One day last spring, water pressure in pipelines suddenly crashed In the Antelope Valley, setting off alarms. Demand had inexplicably spiked, swelling to three and half times normal. Water mains broke open, and storage tanks were drawn down to dangerous levels," said Anish Saraiya the deputy for public works for Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger in an interview with Cal Matters, which reported that there were as many as 4,000 illegal farms in the Sierra Nevada and in some districts the number doubles annually.

In December last year, Deseret (sic) News reported "Illegal pot grows are making forests high on water contamination" based on a report from the U.S. Forestry Service. It found illegal contaminants in ground water, on the surface, on plants and even affecting animals and birds. This is not an esoteric issue; "National forest lands support over 50% of California’s freshwater, 75% of California’s fish and wildlife and 62% of native plants. The surface water in national forests provides critical aquatic and riparian habitat for many species, plus clean water to rural communities, agriculture, municipalities and Indigenous tribes," said Deseret News after analysing the report. And it's not a tiny problem: "Forest Service Law Enforcement and Investigations proactively removed over 100 pesticide containers from 56 illegal cannabis cultivation sites in 2022 before they could pose a risk to watersheds on national forest lands."

That's 56 sites out of an estimated 5,000 in that region.

So what happens when law enforcement raids? FIrst, a network of spotters passes the word and by the time the officers arrive, the farm is deserted. The law allows the destruction of the plants so they do that. "But when we fly a drone over the next day, people are back working," said La Rue.

The profits from illegal sites in his county alone, he said, run to "billions" i.e. thousands of millions.

*cannabis was legalised in California for medicinal use in 1996 and for recreational use in 2016.