In 2016, California voters passed Proposition 64, the “Control, Regulate and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act” by the substantial margin noted in the graphic above.  According to the California Commission on Police Officer Standards and Training, Proposition 64:

permits adults 21 years of age and over to possess and grow specified amounts of marijuana for recreational use.  . . .  Prop 64 added and amended sections to the Penal Code, Business and Professions Code, Health and Safety Code, and the Revenue and Taxation Code. These changes will have an impact on enforcement decisions by California peace officers and prosecutors. Possession of recreational marijuana will still be a crime if in violation of one of the newly added Health and Safety Code Sections, but the penalties have been reduced.  Pursuant to Health and Safety Code Section 11362.1(c), marijuana and its products involved in any way with conduct deemed lawful by this section are not contraband and not subject to seizure. Additionally, conduct deemed lawful by this section cannot constitute a basis for detention, search, or arrest.

Generally, then, Proposition 64 decriminalized much of marijuana possession and use, and reduced penalties for certain marijuana-related rimes. In particular, possession of more than 28.5 grams with intent to sell was reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor. As minorities were typically the targets of prior marijuana laws, Proposition 64 was projected to amend marijuana laws to be more just.  (Nixon counsel John Erlichman openly admitted that laws against heroin and marijuana were designed to target hippies and Blacks; in time, the marijuana laws proved as useful against Blacks and other minorities.)

It was also anticipated that marijuana growing would shift from illegal operators to legal, licensed, taxpaying operators. California’s marijuana market has jumped to nearly $845 million annually, with over 2,800 marijuana businesses currently operating in the state, seemingly bearing out this promise. However, the legal market hasn’t replaced the illicit one.

In fact, the number of illegal marijuana farms, operating in California’s deserts, particularly in San Bernardino County northeast of Los Angeles, and in unincorporated Los Angeles County, has exploded.

Before his corpse was dumped in a shallow grave 50 miles north of Los Angeles, Mauricio Ismael Gonzalez-Ramirez was held prisoner at one of the hundreds of black-market pot farms that have exploded across California’s high desert in the last several years, authorities say.

He worked in what has become California’s newest illegal marijuana haven: the Mojave Desert. A world away from the lush forest groves of the “Emerald Triangle” of Northern California, this hot, dry, unforgiving climate has attracted more than a thousand marijuana plantations that fill the arid expanse between the Antelope Valley and the Colorado River.

It’s an unprecedented siege that has upended life in the remote desert communities and vast tract developments that overlook Joshua trees and scrub. Authorities say the boom has led to forced labor, violence, water theft and the destruction of fragile desert habitat and wildlife.



The marijuana plantations aren’t a few plants grown here and there among other desert life; they are typically industrial-scale greenhouse growing operations. 

Farms capable of growing 3,000 to 5,000 plants at a time now crowd once-empty tracts of desert near Twentynine Palms. Typically, the farms consist of white hoop tents that shelter plants worth millions of dollars on the black market. Workers, who live on the compounds for months at a time, nourish the crop with fertilizer and plastic drip-irrigation tubes.

Some plantations are smaller; one highlighted in the quoted LA Times article was only around 100 marijuana plants, but the owner expected them to net him around $100,000.

Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies within the last few months have counted 500 such illegal grow sites from the air — a huge jump from the 150 tallied last year. In San Bernardino County, sheriff’s deputies have come across 860 illegal sites.

At first glance this is counterintuitive; why would Proposition 64 result in an explosion of illegal marijuana plantations? The regulatory framework in California is somewhat burdensome, including a requirement that only licensed distributors may transport the product, as well as county-level infrastructure requirements and the difficulty of getting distributors to some growing areas.

However, one prominent reason is the reduced sentences mandated under Proposition 64, and relatively lax enforcement. The 100 plant grower mentioned above, for example, one day found police cutting down his plants. They handed him a misdemeanor citation for $500 or up to six months in jail; when he appeared in court for the citation, he discovered there was no record of it. It apparently had never been filed.

Another prominent reason is that Proposition 64 left it up to local communities to decide whether to allow marijuana production and sales or not; including San Bernardino County and Los Angeles County. Illegal growers stepped in to fill the production gap. 

The illegal plantations pose a number of unanticipated problems. The plantation operators essentially steal land that isn’t theirs, and some landowners have been threatened to allow plantations to operate on their land. The plantations also dig up and cover environmentally sensitive areas, including bulldozering sand berms to make way for grow houses, killing desert tortoises, and uprooting Joshua trees.

More practically, plantation operators steal water from landowners and communities in order to grow a relatively water-intensive crop.

One day last spring, water pressure in pipelines suddenly crashed In the Antelope Valley, setting off alarms. Demand had inexplicably spiked, swelling to three and half times normal. Water mains broke open, and storage tanks were drawn down to dangerous levels. . . .

It took a while for officials to figure out where all that water was going: Water thieves — likely working for illicit marijuana operations — had pulled water from remote filling stations and tapped into fire hydrants, improperly shutting off valves and triggering a chain reaction that threatened the water supply of nearly 300 homes.

[W]ater thievery across the state has increased to record levels. Bandits in water trucks are backing up to rivers and lakes and pumping free water they sell on a burgeoning black market. Others, under cover of darkness, plug into city hydrants and top up. Thieves also steal water from homes, farms and private wells, and some even created an elaborate system of dams, reservoirs and pipelines during the last drought. Others are MacGyvering break-ins directly into pressurized water mains, a dangerous and destructive approach known as hot-tapping.

Many of the operations are also guarded by armed personnel, making life for nearby residents more dangerous.

Enforcement is problematic because the production facilities are typically located in remote areas, and local and County law enforcement has too few personnel, or personnel not equipped to handle the weaponry the growers use, or both. 

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors decided last Tuesday to reconsider that County’s ban on production and distribution of marijuana, and to provide additional funds for enforcement, but both measures appear to be inadequate for the problem faced by residents on unincorporated Los Angeles County. San Bernardino County appears to be favoring increased enforcement over legalization.

Given the above, it appears that Proposition 64, California’s voter-selected implementation of marijuana legalization is flawed, perhaps fatally as currently implemented. There are ways to save it, however. First and foremost, the state needs to amend the implementing laws to mandate that marijuana production is legal everywhere in the state (with exceptions for certain state and federal lands) and that local communities cannot decide this on their own. Second, the State needs to re-impose felony penalties for growing without a license or permit, growing on land not owned or leased by the grower, and theft of water for grow operations. Finally, the State needs to allocate more and better resources for enforcement, rather than leaving that to local communities. It would also help if the State streamlined the regulatory process for growing and distributing marijuana.

Legalization of marijuana is the right thing to do. However, unless the State of California, and not just local communities and Counties, takes this problem seriously, marijuana legalization here may come to be seen as a failure.

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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.


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