California report shows ramped-up crackdown on illicit marijuana operators

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California’s top cannabis regulator has boosted and improved enforcement of illicit marijuana operations the past two years, according to newly released data.

Warrants were issued, illegal cannabis plants eradicated, firearms seized and arrests exponentially increased since 2021 in the world’s largest regulated and illicit marijuana market.

According to Department of Cannabis Control (DCC) enforcement statistics released Thursday, the agency’s efforts resulted in:

  • Search warrant operations increasing from 62 in 2021 to 155 in 2022, up 150%.
  • Seizures of illegal cannabis skyrocketing to 144,254 pounds in 2022, a 246% jump from 41,726 pounds a year earlier.
  • Arrests in 2022 more than tripling to 56. That’s still an incredibly low number that underscores the challenges that enforcement officials face in a state with minor fines associated with marijuana violations and little appetite for prosecuting them.
  • Seizures of illegal cannabis in 2022 hitting $243 million, a 211% year-over-year increase from about $78 million, though monetary estimates are often inflated by government agencies.

Combined efforts of the DCC and other California agencies in 2022:

  • Seized 439,800 pounds of cannabis, up 30% from 2021, with a retail value of nearly $737 million, an increase of 29%.
  • Eradicated 960,212 plants, up 30% from 2021.
  • Seized 139 firearms, up 130% from a year earlier.

Interestingly, cash seized in 2022 fell to $1.8 million, down from $7.7 million, or about 77%.

State-led operations tell only part of the enforcement story in California, where a mix of local, county and federal agencies also face a seemingly insurmountable task of trying to rein in an illicit market that some experts contend is double the size of the regulated one.

In San Bernardino County, for instance, law enforcement in the nation’s largest county by land mass served 2,100-plus search warrants and seized more than $1 billion in cannabis plants and processed marijuana since 2020, including a 5,000-plant illegal grow this week, Fox News reported.

“My best estimate is probably 97% to 98% of all of our indoor marijuana cultivations are run by Chinese nationals,” Sgt. Rich Debevec of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Marijuana Enforcement Team told Fox.

“Back in 2019, we got involved in a yearlong investigation where we were able to prove that Chinese nationals were bringing in money from China, purchasing houses in the (Chino-Ontario area) and turning them into marijuana cultivations.”

In a 2021 interview with MJBizDaily detailing the widespread challenges law enforcement faces trying to rein in California’s illicit cannabis market, Debevec said most lawbreakers are written a ticket.

“They never go to jail,” he added.

The illicit market, comprising hundreds of illegal grows and retail outlets across the state, is partially the reason yearly cannabis sales in California declined in 2022 for the first time since the state launched its adult-use market five years ago.

According to state data analyzed by MJBizDaily, cannabis retailers generated just over $5.3 billion in taxable sales of recreational and medical marijuana last year, down 8.6% from roughly $5.8 billion in 2021.

Chris Casacchia can be reached at chris.casacchia@mjbizdaily.com.