Governor Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Rob Bonta published notably similar press releases this week celebrating California’s cannabis industry touting it as the “largest, safest, and most regulated” market in the world.
To protect the Golden State’s legal cannabis industry, Newsom and Bonta extolled the mission of the Campaign Against Marijuana Plants (CAMP) and the newly minted Unified Enforcement Task Force (UETF). These enforcement agencies will prioritize mitigating “environmental and economic harms and labor exploitation” which Bonta argues will help the regulated market.
Multiple Mendocino County leaders with first-hand experience navigating the legal market and the associated enforcement disagree asserting that California’s bungled legal framework economically devastated the North Coast’s cannabis industry. Mendocino County’s cannabis industry is not bottoming out because of the black market plants, but the patchwork implementation of the very legal framework that Newsom and Bonta praise.
Michael Katz is the Executive Direction of the Mendocino Cannabis Alliance. Katz’s advocacy for local cultivators has crafted him into a savant of California’s byzantine cannabis framework. He lives and breathes the process of implementing California’s cannabis framework. When met with the characterization offered by Newsom and Bonta, Katz said most operators in the legal market see the state’s move to legalization as broken
Katz rejected the framing that illegal grows were behind the woes of legal cannabis. Like most, he is concerned by the labor exploitation, violence, and environmental crimes that can occur on the black market grows. But, blaming illegal growers for the legal market’s woes fails to recognize the structural deficiencies of the legal framework.
For one, Katz says the taxes applied to cannabis within dispensaries are too high,de-incentivizing consumers from participating in the legal market. If weed is cheaper from the guy you got it from back in the day, why would you go to the store and pay money? Katz fears economic inflation will intensify this pattern forcing even more consumers to value cheap weed over the pricer, regulated market.
Katz described another structural flaw in the state’s legal framework. The state’s cannabis code gave rise to a practice known as license stacking which gave the legal foundation to essentially establish mega-grows if a county wanted to go that direction. Santa Barbara County is an example of one that now regularly has 5.5 million square feet of active cannabis farms. Katz said this led to overproduction, prices bottoming out, and now cannabis producers statewide are trying to sell in an oversaturated market drowning in product.
Newsom and Bonta’s praise of CAMP for its eradication efforts gave Katz pause. California counties are working to distribute equity grant funding to cannabis farmers who were targeted by CAMP during their operations in the 1980s and 1990s. Simultaneously, state leaders are praising CAMP for its work clearing the way for legal cannabis. While the state pays off old-school growers for the injustices that occurred during the height of the drug war, those same leaders are repackaging the decades-old marijuana enforcers as a steward of legal cannabis.
Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall took to his agency’s Facebook page this weekend to offer his thoughts on the state’s messaging about legal cannabis. “I can tell you, as a rural sheriff I feel as if the policymakers came to our county, hit it with a wrecking ball then began praising themselves for offering us a broom to clean up the mess”, Sheriff Kendall opined.
Newsom and Bonta both place the future of California cannabis on the eradication of the black market. According to Sheriff Kendall, the state’s enforcement approach is inadequate. The state’s strategy to dismantle sophisticated drug trafficking organizations is outdated. As prices drop and growers seek more profitable territories, California has neglected to address the product being shipped across state lines. While the state calls for more eradication, they continue to leave staff shortages affecting California’s law enforcement unaddressed.
MCSO eradicated 200,000 illegally grown plants and 30 tons of processed cannabis. Sheriff Kendall celebrated the collaboration between other sheriff’s departments in the rural north and agencies like Fish and Wildlife. He made a point to say that CAMP is an effective multiplier when they’re available but he said, “Sadly, the CAMP program is a shadow of what it once was, we only received 7 days of assistance from them this year.”
As Sacramento considered its plan to roll out the legal industry, Sheriff Kendall wrote the illegal market brought “homicides, robberies, and environmental destruction” to rural communities, Sheriff Kendall said, “We had two rolling shootouts in the Ukiah and Willits area on Highway 101 this year.” As drug trafficking organizations set up shop in rural areas, Sheriff Kendall expressed concern they would bring “fentanyl and other hard drugs as well as human trafficking, violence, and intimidation.” In response to Bonta’s characterization that California’s cannabis market is “safe”, Sheriff Kendall wondered how the families of those murdered on Mendocino County’s cannabis farms would feel.
John Haschak is Mendocino County 3rd District Supervisor covering Willits, Round Valley, and Laytonville. This district is home to a significant block of Mendocino County’s cannabis farmers. Supervisor Haschak currently serves on Mendocino County’s Cannabis Ad-Hoc alongside 1st District Supervisor Glenn McGourty working with stakeholders to implement a county-specific cannabis program that serves the needs of local growers.
Supervisor Haschak told us, “State and County bureaucracy and permitting has made it very difficult for the legal cannabis industry to flourish while lack of law enforcement resources has permitted illegal cannabis to continue and apparently thrive.”
As a policymaker, Supervisor Haschak has integrated the concerns of the cannabis industry and enforcement agencies. Licensure for legal growing, distribution and retail should be “easier, quicker, and cheaper” while law enforcement should have the “tools and resources they need to deal with illegal grows.”
Supervisor Haschak pointed toward partnering with Sheriff Matt Kendall and appealing for support fighting illegal cannabis from California State Senator Mike McGuire, Mendocino County’s representative in Sacramento. That resulted in local law enforcement receiving $600,000 for cannabis enforcement. But, Supervisor Haschak believes “we need more to be effective in fighting the illegal grows.”
Looking toward the future, Supervisor Haschak told us that recent policy and budgetary changes at the state level could result in positive changes for California’s cannabis industry. But, unlike Governor Newsom and Attorney General Bonta, Supervisor Haschak is not ready to call cannabis a success: “There is a lot to do before we can say mission accomplished.”