Recreational marijuana is projected to be a massive industry, but the illegal California market is still dominating. The process of getting legal as a marijuana farmer in California just is not working. It is beginning to worry many people that the cannabis economic boom expected in California will not happen as planned because the process will be too slowed by the difficult transition.
LAYTONVILLE, Calif. — From the sky they look like citrus groves, neat rows of lush emerald-colored plants set amid the hills of Northern California.
But as a police reconnaissance helicopter banked for a closer look on a recent afternoon, the pungent smell of marijuana plants filled the cabin, wafting up from 800 feet below.
“That’s all weed,” squawked a deputy with the Mendocino County Sheriff’s office over the helicopter intercom. “They’re not in the program.”
More than nine months after California voted to legalize recreational marijuana, only a small share of the tens of thousands of cannabis farmers in Northern California have joined the system, according to law enforcement officers and cannabis growers.
Despite the promise of a legal marketplace, many growers are staying in the shadows, casting doubt on the promise of a billion-dollar tax windfall for the state and a smooth switch to a regulated market.
At the same time, environmental damage and crime associated with illegal cannabis businesses remain entrenched in the state despite legalization, law enforcement officials say.
“I know that the numbers don’t look great; there are a lot of folks that aren’t coming in,” said Hezekiah Allen, the executive director of the California Growers Association, a marijuana advocacy group. “People are losing faith in this process.”
California, which by one estimate produces seven times more marijuana than it consumes, will probably continue to be a major exporter — illegally — to other states. In part, that is because of the huge incentive to stay in the black market: marijuana on the East Coast sells for several times more than in California.
“There are very few areas you can go in the county and not find marijuana — it’s everywhere,” said Bruce Smith, a lieutenant with the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office who leads the county’s efforts to shut down illegal marijuana farms. “The vast majority aren’t permitted.”
Mendocino County has received 700 applications for permits to grow marijuana, according to the Mendocino Department of Agriculture. That is a fraction of the thousands of growers in the area.
“You have folks who have been operating for two decades with maybe some local oversight and some with no oversight at all,” said Lori Ajax, the chief of the state’s Bureau of Cannabis Control. “You want to first give people a chance to get into that regulated market. And then it’s going to take some strong enforcement.”
November’s legalization measure, Proposition 64, decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, allowed individuals to grow six plants at home and set rules for the sale and cultivation of regulated plants, seeking to end what had been two decades of a freewheeling and largely unregulated medical cannabis system. The punishment for growing or possessing large amounts of unregulated marijuana was downgraded to a misdemeanor from a felony.