More resources are needed to police California’s massive cannabis industry – for the legal as well as the illicit trade, two California law enforcement and regulatory officials have warned during a meeting of California’s marijuana overseer.
Jonathan Feldman, a legislative advocate for the California Police Chiefs Association, and Joe Devlin, Sacramento’s chief of cannabis policy and enforcement, gave a presentation at the California Bureau of Cannabis Control’s Advisory Committee meeting on Thursday, July 19, 2018, in San Diego.
They shared a similar message to the committee: They don’t have adequate resources to effectively address illicit cannabis activities.
“Most departments’ budgets have never recovered from the 2008 financial collapse,” Feldman said, adding that most police chiefs report that their departments are operating between 10 and 20 percent below approved staffing levels.
To put the enforcement task into perspective, Feldman said some estimates value the state’s cannabis market at a hefty $5 billion.
“So you took a $5 billion industry and threw it on local government and said, ‘Here, you need to regulate this,’” he said. “There has also been a tremendous burden placed on law enforcement.”
In Sacramento, which has had legal cannabis since 2010, there are 30 storefront dispensaries, as well as cultivation, delivery and laboratory operations, with more businesses coming online, according to Devlin.
“We are the process of permitting 230 applications among those various sectors across the industry,” Devlin said.
As a result, the city established a multidisciplinary team that includes police officers, code officers, fire inspectors, and the city attorney’s office.
“It really takes a collaborative effort,” Devlin said.
The illicit market
Cannabis sells for a premium in the U.S. East Coast where marijuana remains illegal, he added. California is growing between five to 10 times more cannabis than state residents consume, Devlin said. That means the mere size of the state’s cannabis industry has nationwide ramifications.
“If we’re a state of 40 million people and we’re were growing cannabis for a gross population that is five times what we consume, or 10 times, that is gross population of 200 to 400 million people,” he said.
The impact circles back to Sacramento, where a large number of residential homes are being converted into illegal commercial cultivation facilities, Devlin said, adding, “They are in every neighborhood.”
Large, often vacant homes are used as growing facilities and are frequently rigged with wiring to steal electricity, violating safety codes and more.
“We’ve had two homicides associated with [the homes]in the past 18 months now,” Devlin said.
Police chiefs around the state are seeing larger and more sophisticated illegal operations pop up, often as illegal retail fronts that switched to elusive delivery operations that proved difficult to track and resolve with arrests.
Targeting delivery drivers proved ineffective because those who were arrested were just replaced by new drivers. “That took a lot of effort, a lot of time,” Feldman said.
Shutting down illegal retail fronts also is a labor-intensive endeavor.
Police must stake out the facility, determine when operators are going to be present, earn enough trust to enter, make a buy, build a case, and do enough to ensure the district attorney’s office will charge the crimes, Feldman said.
“One retail front in Ventura that was taken down took six weeks,” he added. “It takes a collaborative effort to really go down and shut these folks down.”
Those efforts may require that police work with utilities, the tax board, and others.
While Feldman expects more resources to come from local tax and licensing revenue generated by legal cannabis sales, as well as grants from the state, he’s not sure if it will be enough.
Devlin said more needs to be done than just enforcing existing regulations.
“I don’t believe that this is a problem that we’re going to be able to directly enforce our way out of. I think we need to look for regulatory structures and rules that make efficient use of business models and markets,” he said, “because the war on drugs wasn’t very effective at eliminating cannabis.”