A Merced County Sheriff’s Department officer at an illegal marijuana grow operation in Merced, Calif., on July 26, 2023. (Courtesy of Merced County Sheriff’s Department)
State lawmakers are seeking to stop illegal commercial cannabis growing, processing, and distributing with a bill that would allow jurisdictions to seize assets for unlicensed activity.
Senate Bill 820
, introduced by Sen. Marie Alvarado-Gil (D-Jackson) and under consideration by the Senate’s Appropriations Committee Jan. 18, would allow cities and counties to seize vehicles and other assets under new forfeiture laws that mirror the state’s approach to unlicensed alcohol production.
Supporters say such is necessary because many growers and distributors in the state’s licensed cannabis industry are struggling to stay in business due to cheaper, unlicensed products that are widely available.
But some critics are questioning the definition of “commercial cannabis activity” that triggers the allowance of forfeiture. It’s currently set at harvesting, drying, or processing 1,000 living cannabis plants or more, according to the text of the bill, but could change during the amendment process.
Additionally, any vehicle used to “conceal, convey, carry, deliver, or transport cannabis or cannabis products” valued at $5,000 or more could be seized.
Consultants for the Senate Public Safety Committee wrote in legislative analyses last year that such could result in a person who agrees to transport a handful of pounds of cannabis for an acquaintance potentially having their vehicle seized and auctioned with the proceeds going to the state.
“Not only does this possible scenario raise concerns about the bill’s disproportionate impact on poorer individuals, it raises significant civil rights concerns,” the consultants said.
Others wonder how values will be determined, as wholesale prices in Northern California are currently in the $300 to $500 range per pound, though a Jan. 16 press release
from one of the state’s enforcement agencies valued seizures at a retail price of approximately $1,600 per pound.
Established in 2022, the state’s Unified Cannabis Enforcement Task Force seized, in 2023, nearly 190,000 pounds—valued at approximately $312 million—and eradicated more than 300,000 plants from unlicensed operators—the group’s first full year of operation, according to the press release.
There are roughly 5,000 greenhouses illegally cultivating marijuana in Siskiyou County, Calif., according to the county's Sheriff's Department in March 2023. (Courtesy of the Siskiyou County Sheriff's Department)
An effort between more than two dozen law enforcement agencies, the Department of Cannabis Control and the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife co-lead the task force, with coordination by the Homeland Security Division of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
“California is effectively decreasing the illegal cannabis market by leveraging the strengths and knowledge of over 20 state agencies and departments alongside our local and federal partners,” Nicole Elliott, director of the cannabis control department, said in the press release. “The [task force’s] progress in 2023 reflects California’s ongoing commitment to disrupting and dismantling illegal cannabis activity.”
One aspect of the task force is protecting the environment, as illegal grows are notorious for contaminating lands with fertilizers and pesticides—with some using products that are banned in California.
“We’ve sent a strong message that illegal operations that harm our natural resources, threaten the safety of workers, and put consumer health at risk have no place in California,” Charlton H. Bonham, director of the California Fish and Wildlife Department, said in the press release. “While there is more work to be done, we made progress last year and I look forward to going further alongside our county, state, and federal partners.”
Noting the severity of the problem, supporters of the senate bill said more must be done to address illegal cannabis farms.
“California law currently does not have consequences strong enough to deter the widespread illegal commercial cannabis activities in many communities,” co-sponsors of the bill, the Rural County Representatives of California—an advocacy group representing 40 counties—said in Legislative analyses. “The reality, unfortunately, is that many illicit cannabis operations are able to quickly recover following enforcement actions due to complicit landlords, exploitation of workers, and remaining specialty equipment used for the cultivation, manufacturing, and retail of illegal cannabis.”
Many illegal growers simply replant and continue operating as soon as the raids are finished, the group said.
“Local jurisdictions often get calls within 24-48 hours after enforcement action that these bad actors are back in business,” the county representatives said. “State and local enforcement efforts have minimal impact without addressing the [underlying] infrastructure that enables these lucrative illegal operations to bounce back quickly.”
Critics of the bill, including the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group the National Organization for the Reformation of Marijuana Laws, argued in the Legislative analyses that they had “grave concerns” about the authorizations granted to state agencies by the proposal.
“Significantly, it shifts the burden of proof from the government to the defendant and allows the forfeiture of property not necessarily related to any cannabis crime,” the group wrote. “Our organization and our allies in criminal justice reform worked for years to reform California’s forfeiture laws, which have many constitutional issues, and have historically been misapplied without due process of law, fairness, or reason, and even led to corruption, since law enforcement entities could keep all or part of the proceeds they seized.”
If the bill passes the Appropriations Committee, it will next be debated on the Senate floor.
The California State Capitol building in Sacramento, Calif., on March 11, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)