LOS ANGELES — Illegal weed shops outnumber legal marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles County, according to the Associated Press. Lt. Frank Montez of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department leads raids conducted on a weekly basis at illegal weed shops in the county. An estimated 64 percent of marijuana dispensaries are illegal in Los Angeles.
The California Bureau of Cannabis Control mailed cease-and-desist letters to at least 900 illegal dispensaries for operating without a California state license and ordered them to close. The city also targeted illegal weed shops by charging 142 people as part of its ongoing sting on illegal dispensaries. There are only about 150 legal marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles County currently.
With more illegal weed shops throughout the county than legal retailers, worries about the black market impeding the legal marijuana industry is a reality, according to the executive director of the Southern California Coalition Adam Spiker.
Spiker says legal marijuana dispensaries have to compete with illegal shops that don't charge taxes. Customers pay less at illegal weed shops and the legal shops lose business. Spiker believes it is an unfair competitive situation for legal marijuana businesses.
"If it was another industry that didn’t have the stigmas, the government would do everything they could to give those licensed businesses paying taxes a level playing field,” he said.
Montez agrees that legal marijuana business owners should have a fair chance against illegal retailers. He also worries that the illegal marijuana dispensaries may be selling marijuana grown with toxic and illegal pesticides, adding that illegal dispensaries hurt the legal marijuana industry, as well as the community. At least 78 percent of the illegal cultivation sites tested in Northern California tested positive for carbofuran, a banned pesticide in the U.S. that kills animals and humans.
Lt. Montez also says that many people are unaware that they are purchasing their marijuana products from an illegal shop because they appear legal and even advertise online. He said that people are ingesting dangerous chemicals unwittingly and endangering their health. They frequent the pot shops believing they are getting a good price on a regulated and safe product.
Illegal Weed: “The Tip of the Iceberg”
The majority of California's illegal weed market is grown in the northern part of the state with a large amount grown in Lake County. The landscape is popular because it has massive federal and state forests that effectively double as camouflage for illegal marijuana crops. Drug cartels have set up on the land and grow at least 1.4 million marijuana plants per year on the forest lands.
Law enforcement does not have the resources to effectively police such vast areas. Yosemite National Park is more than 1,200 square miles alone. Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin says that they destroyed 250,000 plants last year along with arresting 46 people, but even with police on the ground and in helicopters, they are only at the "tip of the iceberg,” when it comes to eradicating illegal grows.
Sheriff Martin said that he lacks the manpower to fully destroy the illegal weed grows and only has one full-time detective assigned to eliminating illegal pot crops. He added that no law enforcement agency has the resources to eliminate the black market.
When the state legalized marijuana the law changed and marijuana possession of over an ounce became a misdemeanor, so illegal pot shop owners risk the penalty because they can earn a healthy profit, according to Capt. Holly Francisco.
“It’s a money-lucrative business," she said, adding that people are more than willing to take the risk.