Hidden underneath the cover of our magnificent, forested lands in Northern California lies a dangerous multi-billion-dollar black market marijuana industry. Even though California legalized marijuana for recreational use in 2016, an illicit market still thrives. In 2019, the black market brought in nearly triple the profits in sales over California’s legal cannabis industry. Legalizing cannabis was unfortunately a misguided attempt by California’s Democrat-led legislature to curb rising rates of crime and illegal drug proliferation that only added fuel to the fire. Currently in California, residents can lawfully grow up to six cannabis plants on their private property, but legalizing cannabis at the state level reduced legal punishment of illegal grows to a misdemeanor. It’s a no-risk ‘slap on the wrist’ for growing seven plants or seven thousand plants, and you can earn millions doing it. Essentially, California’s refusal to deter illegal growing has targeted both our public and private lands as a prime area for the black market. Regardless of California’s decriminalization of cannabis, nothing about these grows is legal.
Many people from throughout the state, nation and world come to the Emerald Triangle – the largest cannabis-producing region of the state, consisting of Humboldt, Trinity, and Mendocino counties – to work in the cannabis industry, and many don’t make it out. According to the North Coast Journal, the Emerald Triangle has the highest per-capita rate of people reported missing in California. These numbers are staggering, with local law enforcement outnumbered when combatting these massive, organized crime systems. Legalization has expanded this into neighboring counties and last year the body of a young woman who had been a victim of human trafficking was found in a shallow grave near a grow site. Cartels terrorize rural residents into giving up their land or seize uninhabited public land, destroying wildlife, and fueling crime.
To cut corners and decrease input costs on their product, cartels bring in toxic chemicals, such as carbofuran, that are banned in the U.S. Without any kind of quality control, particles of these dangerous chemicals remain on the product and are ingested by users. These chemicals are so toxic that they destroy the surrounding plants and wildlife, and seep into the state’s water supply through rivers and streams, poisoning all who consume. These chemicals have turned thousands of acres of land into toxic waste dumps, decimating nearby animals and hospitalizing law enforcement officers who inadvertently encounter it during raids. Trash, illegal pesticides, large amounts of untreated human waste and fuel cover the ground that has been scraped bare of organic matter with nothing left but dust.
Open-border policies have allowed cartel bosses to come and go at their leisure, bring in banned chemicals, illegal weapons, and trafficking people into the country for forced labor in their grows. Local law enforcement authorities conducting raids on illicit grow sites find foreign workers held against their will in third world conditions while they tend the crops destined for the black market. An estimated 80 percent of what is sold legally originates in the illegal grows. Buyers have no idea what they are ingesting despite the state’s claims of supervision and testing. As the demand for cheap illegal cannabis grows, so does the abuse and exploitation of women who are trafficked for “company” on the isolated farms.
Areas where the cartels set up their farms are sparsely populated, and local officials don’t have the resources necessary to combat crime at this scale. Siskiyou County in far northern California has seen more than their fair share of cartel caused chaos spill over from the Emerald Triangle. The entire county had less than 44,000 residents in the 2020 census, but it is over five times the size of Rhode Island. There are not enough police, sheriffs, code enforcement agents to enforce our laws and make sure the people who are growing are permitted. Siskiyou County does not issue growing permits and yet there are over 8,000 illegal grows that have sprung up in the county, resulting in gang killings as well as intimidation of residents.
Illegal cannabis cultivation is not the “green” gold rush we were sold – it destroys our scenic natural landscape and puts rural residents’ lives at risk. California’s – and the United States’ – growing embrace of cannabis products have only expanded the cartels’ reach. To combat this issue, I have introduced legislation to give resources to law enforcement to eradicate illegal marijuana grows on public lands, increase fines and penalties for such cultivation and establish a fund to restore land damaged by that activity. I would support increased penalties and law enforcement support for illegal private land grows as well. This level of criminality cannot be tolerated, we need to crack down on illegal grows.
Doug LaMalfa represents California’s 1st District.