California Clamps Down on Black Market Pot Operations

As the black market for pot sales shows little sign of slowing, Californian authorities have notably increased enforcement action against illegal cannabis traders. Over the last 12 months, raids by law enforcement on black market pot businesses have increased threefold, when compared with similar activity conducted in the year prior. As a result, unlicensed pot growers and sellers have seen a total of $30 million worth of cannabis products seized. But even amid this additional ramp up, cannabis industry insiders say even more activity is needed to curb illegal pot sales across the Golden State.

For context, in 2018 local law enforcement worked in conjunction with the state Bureau of Cannabis Control, and together they served six unlicensed cannabis businesses with search warrants. These raids resulted in the seizure of more than 1,500 pounds of marijuana, said to carry a street value of $13.5 million.

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Comparatively, according to data release in July, within the first half of 2019 alone, the bureau had already served 19 search warrants to unlicensed sellers. Those raids were successful, and saw more than $16.5 million worth, or about 2,500 pounds of illicit marijuana, confiscated. Just shy of $220,000 cash was also seized from cannabis businesses operating illegally during this time.


Proposition 64, which came into effect in November 2016 and permits adult possession (up to an ounce) of marijuana for personal use, was intended to curb the illegal pot market. But so far, this has not been the case. Research firm New Frontier Data estimated the marijuana black market in California was worth $3.7 billion last year alone, which was four times higher than the lawful market.

To help tackle the issue of illegal pot retailers, Governor Gavin Newsom recently threw extra support behind current law enforcement crackdowns. In July, the Governor approved $30,000-a-day fines for cannabis growers, sellers and distributors, who operate throughout California without a license.

Despite this emphatic deterrent, Lindsay Robinson, the California Cannabis Industry Association executive director, says unlicensed retailers, who number in the thousands, continue to operate illegally throughout the state, and many even feel comfortable enough to advertise their businesses.

State officials have conceded they’ve run into problems while working to issue new licenses in the cannabis market. Obstacles such as cities refusing to permit marijuana sales, as well as local and state taxes raising the price of legal marijuana by approximately 45%, have both contributed to an unexpected thwarting of the legal market.

Another challenge for the bureau appears to be staffing. The state’s Department of Finance recently conducted a recent audit which found, the bureau is not properly resourced to handle all the activity it endeavors to fulfill. California has had a year to establish a new bureau that drafts regulations and procedures relating to the legal cannabis market. But auditors reported that only 15 of the Enforcement Unit’s 68 authorized positions had been filled.

Given the Enforcement Unit’s current staffing configuration, “the Bureau’s ability to process complaints, perform inspections and investigations, and review and inspect testing laboratories is severely impacted,” the audit said.

Trade groups in particular have voiced their disappointment, following the unveiling of the new state budget recently signed by Newsom. As it stands, the budget fails to include an industry proposal suggesting an addition of $10 million. That allocation would fund a clamp down on retailers operating without a license, and assign sworn peace officers to follow up by enforcing the law.

Legal Implications Thus Far
It remains to be seen whether continued crack down efforts by law enforcement will ultimately deter illegal marijuana businesses. Industry stakeholders will be pulling for law abiding cannabis outfits to benefit from running above board businesses, by way of increased market share.

Need Legal Help Obtaining or Renewing a Commercial Cannabis Business License?
Our Los Angeles cannabis business licensing lawyers can help answer any questions you may have.

The Los Angeles CANNABIS LAW Group represents growers dispensaries, ancillary companies, patients and those facing criminal marijuana charges. Call us at 714-937-2050.

Additional Resources:
Proposition 64
California Bureau of Cannabis Control
California Cannabis Industry Association