May 30, 2024
Roughly $53.6 million in illegal cannabis was seized in California within the first three months of 2024.

Growing and selling marijuana on the black market remains a lucrative business in California — long after voters approved recreational pot sales and use in 2016. But state enforcement officials have kept busy trying to dismantle illicit production to better support legal ventures.

Roughly $53.6 million in illegal cannabis was seized within the first three months of 2024, according to an April 11 report from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Between January 1 and March 31, the Governor’s Unified Cannabis Enforcement Taskforce seized 31,866 pounds of unlicensed cannabis and eradicated 54,137 unlicensed cannabis plants. Agents served a total of 18 search warrants statewide, including two in Alameda County.

Since its inception in late 2022, the taskforce has gleaned more than $371 million in unlicensed cannabis and 400,000 illicit plants, after serving upward of 230 search warrants.

During its first full calendar year of operation during 2023, the estimated value of cannabis seized in Alameda County exceeded $77.8 million — the highest of any California county, followed by Siskiyou, Mendocino, Los Angeles and Kern counties.

Notable busts of illegal grow operations in the East Bay in recent months include a March 29 seizure in East Oakland of $10 million worth of cannabis from a property just north of the Coliseum — the third such enforcement operation in the area within the past six months — as well as a raid in February 2023 when authorities seized about 12,000 pounds of cannabis worth over $19 million from a West Berkeley warehouse. Another illicit grow in Oakland that housed an estimated $36.9 million worth of unlicensed cannabis was shut down in October; state enforcement officials said that was one of the highest-value operations that year.

Additionally, officials further north in Contra Costa County shut down 20 illegal indoor cannabis cultivators in Antioch, Brentwood, Pittsburg and Discovery Bay, which was valued at more than $15.3 million in cannabis last June.

While the state’s statistics may not reflect all local enforcement efforts, Gov. Gavin Newsom lauded the ongoing work across California, which he said is home to the largest legal cannabis market in the world.

“As we continue to cultivate a legal marketplace,” Newsom said in a statement, “we’re taking aggressive action to crack down on those still operating in the shadows — shutting down illegal operations linked to organized crime, human trafficking, and the proliferation of illegal products that harm the environment and public health.”

Efforts to shut down illegal cannabis operations rely heavily on intelligence gathering and targeted investigations, according to Bill Jones, chief of the law enforcement division of the Department of Cannabis Control, which was established in July 2021.

He confirmed to NPR earlier this month that the black market is “definitely larger” than the legal market. In addition to ripple effects of lackluster enforcement in the first few years of legalization in California, scores of cannabis entrepreneurs are worried that California’s $5.3 billion legal pot industry is barely staying afloat, due in part to continued federal restrictions, booming illicit markets, crumbling wholesale prices of pot per pound and crippling tax burdens that have decimated any potential to make a profit.

Beyond efforts to mitigate black-market business, Jones said Thursday that the taskforce’s work shutting down unlicensed cannabis operations also has an important public safety component.

Dangers associated with illicit cannabis businesses can range from the health risks tied to untested vape cartridges that can be filled with toxic additives to the fires sparked by electrical connections that have been modified or even bypassed by unlicensed growers.

Last month, an Antioch home was gutted as a result of an illegal marijuana grow operation that complicated the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District’s efforts to extinguish the flames.

While the district does not currently collect data about fires connected to black market cannabis businesses, Fire Chief Lewis Broschard told county officials at a Fire District meeting last week that “illegal marijuana grow operations are just as prevalent now as they were before legalization.”