California voters legalized cannabis last decade. So why is the illegal market more successful than ever?
California voters legalized cannabis in 2016, and one of the issues that was supposed to be solved was the violence and environmental wreckage associated with the drug’s illegal trade. But that hasn’t happened.
Inside California’s famed “Emerald Triangle,” a region north of San Francisco known for its weed, there’s an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 illegal cannabis farms alone. The under-the-radar cultivation is messing with once-peaceful communities. Today, we get into this issue. Read the full transcript here.
Host: Gustavo Arellano
Guests: L.A. Times investigative reporter Paige St. John
Legal Weed, Broken Promises: A Times series on the fallout of legal pot in California
Nobody knows how widespread illegal cannabis grows are in California. So we mapped them
The reality of legal weed in California: Huge illegal grows, violence, worker exploitation and deaths
Gustavo Arellano: California voters legalized cannabis in 2016, and one of the issues that was supposed to be solved was the violence and environmental wreckage associated with the drug’s illegal trade.
Tape: Under the clear white light of police protection and government regulation and taxation and all the things that this will do, yes, I would far rather it be legal the way the alcohol industry is…
Gustavo: But that hasn’t happened. A Los Angeles Times investigation has found that the mayhem has continued. Inside California’s famed “Emerald Triangle,” a region north of San Francisco known for its weed, there’s an estimated 5 to 10,000 illegal cannabis farms. And that’s in just one of the three counties that make up the triangle. This under-the-radar cultivation – it’s messing with once-peaceful communities.
Kat Willits: It's the whim of a grower that doesn't have his own place to do it and is basically coming in and taking advantage of it.
Gustavo: I’m Gustavo Arellano. You’re listening to The Times, essential news from the L.A. Times. It’s Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022. Today: the dark side of legalizing marijuana in the Golden State. My L.A. Times colleague Paige St. John is an investigative reporter and is part of our deep dive into the problems California has faced ever since it legalized cannabis. Paige, welcome to The Times.
Paige St. John: Thank you. I'm glad to be here.
Gustavo: So you and our colleagues swept across the state to look at the problems of legal weed. And you, specifically, you focused on trying to figure out how big this issue of illegal farms is. And beyond just talking to people, you analyzed satellite imagery because not even regulators in California know the scope of it all. So what did you find?
Paige: Oh, I tell you, it's overwhelming. The state doesn't provide hard data. It had the ability, for instance, it built a computer program that could use machine learning and actually take satellite images and identify cannabis. They could cover the entire state. And under [Gov. Gavin] Newsom’s COVID-19 budget cuts, that program had the rug pulled out from under it. And the state won't even release cultivation records for the stuff that's grown legally in California. So absent all of that, we had to build our own databases, kind of start from scratch. I used satellite imagery. Our reporters went on the ground. We've traveled the whole state. We've talked to people in Trinity, San Bernardino, you know, from one end of the state to the other to try to get our arms around how huge this is. And at the same time find communities that have completely been upended that reflect and give you the real boots-on-the-ground understanding of what's happening.
Gustavo: Yeah, one of the places you visited was the small community of Covelo up in Northern California. Why there?
Paige: Well, our analysis of satellite imagery covered thousands of square miles documenting this dramatic surge in illegal cultivation across California. But there was one particular place that really struck me because of the microcosm of change that it reflected. And that's Round Valley Indian Reservation in Mendocino County.
It's tucked away, half an hour away from the closest other town, you know, no stoplights, one grocery store, two gas stations and about a thousand people. But it has become consumed with cannabis, both licensed farms, and, nine times more than that, illegal farms. It's become a real draw for the illegal market and changed the fabric of the whole community. So for us, that became the microcosm of what's happened statewide.
Gustavo: So what kind of changes happened in Covelo, then?
Paige: Oh, huge, huge change in the social fabric of the communities that have been consumed. Covelo, they have to deal now with armed robberies, with kidnappings, with gunshot and gunfire and murders in their communities. So I think that's been the biggest dramatic change. You've got the environmental impact. You've got streams that are still being diverted. So huge environmental impact and huge social impact.
Kat: People were wholesome. They waved to each other going down the road. And, you know, people took pride in their properties and they raised animals and they took care of their families and they all worked hard.
Paige: This is Kat Willits. She’s a Covelo school administrator and former council member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes. She drove me around Covelo and showed me some of the ways these illegal farms are changing her community.
Kat: Now when you drive around, you see abandoned cars, you see trash, you see just this outward emotion of, I don't care about the land. And it, that in itself, is – that desecrates everything that being native is. We are the people who were put here to care for this land. We are here to care for the water and. And for 20,000 years, we did that. And then the last 300 years, we've given up that. And they're decimating their own land with the byproducts of cannabis grows.
Paige: These illegal firms have so overwhelmed Round Valley that at a community meeting in 2021, the tribal director James Russ reached out for help from other people in the county.
James Russ: We have been really focusing on trying to find a contractor or somebody who has the capacity to get rid of a lot or all of these cars that are laying all over the place and, uh, illegally dumped here and there. If a car, I mean, all of us can see this in front of our face, if a car is broken down on the Covelo road or any place, within a day or two, all the windows are broken out and then they'll just torch it. This is just totally overwhelming. We've just been totally overran. Something needs to be done.
Gustavo: So who's maintaining all of these grows, both the legal and illegal ones?
Paige: These grows draw largely from the immigrant community in California. People have come in from Mexico, from China, from Argentina. You've got your traditional, what they call “trimmigrants,” who are people who come from another country just for the summer to work cannabis. But you've also now got people who are coming in from doing other crops. And these low-wage workers, you know, are the dominant force of growing all of this weed.
Gustavo: Any time I think about immigrant labor, I think probably exploitation. Is that what the investigation has found so far?
Paige: Huge, huge problem in that. We've got both legal and illegal farms guilty of not paying workers, promising them that they'll get their wages at the end of the season. And then if the crop doesn't sell – or if it does, but they're not honest about it – telling their workers, “Sorry, tough luck. You know, you don't get any money for the season.” I've met people who have waited a year for wages. People who are starving, trapped in the places where they're at, because they don't even have the money to get out. On top of that, you've got horrible working conditions in many of these farms, squalid conditions, no sanitation…
Crosstalk: Tell me what's happened here? Well, right here, just a bathroom, shower area … they use cold water. Uh huh.
Paige: Well, one person I met in my investigation was Dagoberto Morales. He's the co-director of a farm worker advocacy organization in southern Oregon. And he actually used to work as a farmer in the strawberry fields in Southern California. And Dagoberto told me that the conditions in these illegal cannabis farms today remind him of how bad things were on the farms that he worked for, migrant and other migrant workers, back before they organized and pushed for change. I mean, they're living next to the crops. They tend, they're defecating on the ground. There's no showers. They've had makeshift provisions, basically living like a homeless camp.
Dagoberto Morales: Actually I lived in one of those before.
Paige: You did?
Paige: And people were living like this in the ’80s there?
Dagoberto: Mm-hmm. Yeah. yeah.
Paige: And, and who stopped that?
Dagoberto: Uh, I think it came with a movement by Cesar Chavez.
Chris Hall: It took Cesar Chavez to stop that.
Paige: So we toured this camp with Chris Hall. He's a water rights advocate working at the time for the Illinois River Valley Soil and Water Conservation District. We found that the farms in Southern Oregon and Northern California are tied together. They're really part of the same large push in illegal farms, many by the same operators, even.
Tape: So this…this was a bathroom. Yeah, it's a shower-bathroom. You can see the shampoo… Okay. So it's just for shower. He is for the shower. Cause you can see the shampoo. He used to work labor camps in these conditions. Right, right, right. He, so he knows what he's seeing. Yeah. Wow. Shaving waste and…
Paige: So in this instance, we're at what used to be the Q-Bar-X ranch, uh, farm. There were more than 300 illegal greenhouses found on this property. The people who own the land say they didn't know the true name of the people they had leased to. Uh, the operators disappeared when the cops came and so nobody knows who actually was running this farm.
Chris: People come in from outside. Like the, the, the big growers, you know, and they just colonize the area and then they hired everybody from the agricultural sector to work for ’em, and they don't pay ’em anything that's right. Right.
Chris: So the living conditions on a cannabis farm in Josephine County and here at Q-Bar-X ranch are not like the living conditions on, the grapes, the pears in the Central Valley of California.
Paige: Because these farms are so makeshift of just basically hoop houses from PVC and plastic, sheeting and powered by, uh, portable generators, there's been a surge in deaths from carbon-monoxide poisoning. I've found more than a dozen workers who had died in these hoop houses were trying to stay warm in the little sheds next to them in just the four counties that I looked at since legalization.
Gustavo: How we got here, after the break.
Gustavo: So Paige, how have all these illegal weed farms impacted the legal ones?
Paige: It's been devastating. The legal market already has oversupply issues. California's issued many times more licenses for cultivation than the state market can support. But the illegal market is perhaps eight times larger than the legal market in the state. It's selling to buyers outside of California, predominantly, that's where that cannabis goes. But the market is so glutted; there's so much illegal cultivation in California, Oregon, Oklahoma, that the whole national market has collapsed. And I've met legal growers who are trying to make a go of it, who can't sell their crops.
Gustavo: OK. So I don't get why the illegal market for cannabis growing, it's far outpacing the legal market. Like, why don't more growers take advantage of getting on the right side of the law instead of just wanting to continue to be on the wrong side of it?
Paige: This is a complicated question here. A lot of growers that I talked to who did buy the promise that legalization was the way to go – it would protect them – feel burnt. They feel like that was a false promise. They have to deal with incredible amount of regulation, not just a state license, but a local license, a water board permit and another permit from California Fish and Wildlife. The illegal market has none of those regulatory burdens. It has a huge marketplace to sell to. The demand is high, not just states that haven't licensed cannabis yet, but states that have licensed it are still great markets. And then there's now a global market as well. I kept hearing stories of California cannabis, you know, being shipped overseas. So the risk is low. The state removed the felony charges for being caught in illegal cultivation. It's now a $500 misdemeanor, no matter how much cannabis you're growing. And the reward remains huge. So California didn't change the equation of why illicit pot is so attractive. And in fact, before the market collapsed in prices, I had people telling me that it was more profitable than cocaine or heroin.
Gustavo: Wow. All of this of course happened in 2016 when voters in California passed Proposition 64. Was any of the problems that we're seeing now, like was anyone calling that like, warning, “Hey, if Prop 64 passes, if you decriminalize marijuana and legalize it, uh, you're gonna have these issues.”
Paige: Law enforcement agents will tell you, yes, they made that warning. They said, this is not gonna shut down the cartels and the organized crime, the murders, the violence. And we have continued to find a huge amount of violence, I have to say. And I think that they were discounted because of the belief that law enforcement has always been antagonistic to cannabis. And the state bought into this premise that if it could create a legal market, that market would overcome the illicit market. It would outcompete. And in fact, that's the course the state continues on. It is continuing to pressure counties to allow cultivation, to open up dispensaries – more is better, is still the mantra. The mantra for the state is, let's go national. Let's let the legal market compete nationally and take on the illegal market. But they're not building in the protections and the safeguards that remove the burdens from the people like in Covelo who've had to live with the actual consequences.
Gustavo: So people just have to live with these consequences then, not just in Covelo, but all up and down the state.
Paige: So while I'm moving around the state, trying to understand what's been happening, I encountered a number of licensed growers who were struggling. And I met Mary Gaterud early on.
Mary Gaterud: I was kind of dejected upon graduation because, you know, I was looking at a minimum-wage job, which was like six bucks an hour at the time. And I was like, “Yeah, I think I'm just gonna dip out and grow weed.”
Paige: Mary lives – and you have to picture this – she's deep in Humboldt County on the banks of the Eel River. You have to drive half an hour under twisty, winding roads that become narrower and narrower and less and less like a road. And in this deep, faraway canyon, Mary has been living since the ’90s, you know, growing cannabis under the state's hazy, fuzzy medical marijuana laws, and one of the first to embrace legalization and try to make a go of it.
Mary: I started early, like as soon as they developed medical regulations in 2015, I applied, I was one of the first people. And so it was a little bit, seemed a little bit more doable then, but then when the state, when Prop. 64 passed, that kind of changed everything and made it a lot more onerous and difficult.
Paige: So she was pretty desperate when I met her, just had her crop, which is her income for the entire year, returned to her from a distributor down in L.A., unsaleable and trying to decide, do I plant again? And the eternal optimist and every licensed I grower made the same decision. They're gonna try again. And as we did the reporting, Mary's next crop was harvested, trimmed, sent back to distributors. And as we're writing the project, that crop, again, didn't sell. So she had borrowed money from family, from friends to get by. And finally for the first time since the early ’90s, Mary had to look for a job in order to stay in her house and continue to live her dream and plant it again. She's still trying to grow.
Mary: I do enjoy growing weed and I thought it was a good living and um, I, I dunno, I guess I was naive, one part naive, one part crazy. And one part just really wanting to, um, stay here.
Gustavo: After the break: what the state of California is or isn't doing about illegal grows in California.
Gustavo: Paige, you mentioned that the state of California says with its legal growers, let's just double down, let's become a national resource, even as illegal growers far outnumber it. What's California doing to combat, then, illegal growers?
Paige: Not a lot that's different from what the state did before. In 2011, California dismantled its Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement under the Department of Justice, that was Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, and pulled out a lot of the small local task forces that helped communities, sheriff's departments and local jurisdictions fight cannabis. So what the state has now, because no single agency takes responsibility for looking and overseeing illegal cannabis, is this crazy quilt. You've got some annual raids by the National Guard that continue under the old camp program, but it's a fraction of what camp used to be. And they only cut down plants. You've got the Fish and Game, Department of Fish and Wildlife officers, but you think just nine officers covering an area of California that produces like 40% of the illegal cannabis. You've got the water boards, who cut their enforcement when cannabis taxes didn't come in and meet projections. And then you've got sheriffs, you've got Mendocino County, which has a marijuana enforcement team of 1.5.
Gustavo: Ha. 1.5.
Paige: One sworn officer, one part-time officer and 5,000 grows.
Paige: So the sheriff is at a loss at what to do. He described it as trying to take on an army with a penknife.
Matt Kendall: I've got a little bit of Covelo redneck that seems to come out and people ask me, “Where's your accent from?” I'm like, “I don't have one,” “Yeah, you do. Ha.”
Paige: So this is Matt Kendall, the sheriff of Mendocino County. We were sitting in his office and he's talking about 5,000 illegal grows that he knows of, another 5,000 that he suspects are in the county, and his marijuana enforcement task force is 1.5. A full-time sergeant and a part-time reserve officer.
Matt: We don't have the personnel to deal with these things. Well, you're bringing in all of this, you know, funding and whatnot. Why don't you use some of that to build up the personnel to deal with these things? Let's face it, some of this stuff is a result of, and, and I'm not gonna say it was bad legislation. I think it was high time that we did legalize this. It’s the framework that didn’t get put into place to make sure that we had a viable market. Well, the homicides and the baloney that goes on out here constantly, that’s what the issue is.
Gustavo: Geez. Isn't there something called the Department of Cannabis Control in California? Are they doing anything to keep track of all these outlaw operations?
Paige: The director of the Department of Cannabis Control, who is Gavin Newsom's cannabis advisor, Nicole Elliot, told me that her first priority is to create the legal market and make sure that that has integrity.
Paige: It's the belief that if you create a functioning legal market, It will overtake the illegal market. So that's the path that the state continues on. They do have sworn agents; she's built up their enforcement division to 59 agents. They cover the entire state. They cover not just cultivation, but dispensaries, distributors, you know, the whole gamut of illegal cannabis. And I found that in their first year they had originated only like 25 of their own search warrants for grows. One was a big operation in Alameda, but their only presence in Mendocino County, where people are literally dying, was to join Fish and Wildlife on a raid on a small creek, very small farms. They had like two or three hoop houses and not considered particularly dangerous. So spread thin, a little bit too late.
Gustavo: Finally, Paige, as we say a lot on this show: As California goes, so does the rest of the United States and even the world. What do you see happening in the future as this issue of illegal grows evolves?
Paige: There is, as I mentioned earlier, pressure to make cannabis legal nationwide, and to allow cross-state shipping as well as cannabis banking to allow cannabis operations, to use banks. And the argument is if we do that, if we end prohibition everywhere, we can finally get ahead of the illicit market. But that doesn't take into account what we've seen happen here in California. And I have to say it's happened even worse in Oregon and it's happening right now in Oklahoma. The rewards are still so high and the risks are still so low for organized crime that it remains attractive. And so unless you deal with that head-on, and I haven't seen any proposals to do that, the state, a national market, could actually kick off more of what we're seeing here.
Gustavo: Paige, thank you so much for this conversation.
Paige: Oh, it's always a delight. Thanks, Gustavo.
Gustavo: To read our many, many stories into the unintended consequences of legal cannabis, go to latimes.com/brokenpromises.
And that’s it for this episode of The Times, essential news from the L.A. Times.
David Toledo, Surya Hendry and Denise Guerra were the jefes on this episode, and Mario Diaz mixed and mastered it.
Our show is produced by Shannon Lin, Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, David Toledo and Ashlea Brown. Our editorial assistant is Madalyn Amato. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmín Aguilera, Shani Hilton and Heba Elorbany. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen.
I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back Friday with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.