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California AG Announces New Efforts To Address Unlicensed Weed Grows

Rob Bonta of California announced new initiatives to tackle unlicensed marijuana production. Bonta said that illegal weed is still more popular than the licensed cannabis market. Bonta announced also that nearly one million illegal cannabis plants were eradicated by the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, an annual campaign to end California’s cannabis plant cultivation.

“The illicit marketplace outweighs the legal marketplace,” Bonta said at a press conference on Tuesday. “It’s upside down and our goal is complete eradication of the illegal market.”

Bonta announced that CAMP had eradicated nearly 1 million illicit cannabis plants between 2022 and now, in 26 California counties. CAMP, an annual program that typically runs for three months in the cannabis growing season, will be extended to cover operations related to the illegal market. Bonta characterized the new year-round effort, dubbed the Eradication and Prevention of Illicit Cannabis (EPIC) program, as “an important shift in mindset and in mission.” In addition to combating unlicensed cannabis cultivation, EPIC will also address the broader illicit market and prosecute crimes associated with the underground marijuana economy including labor violations and environmental offenses.

“California has the largest safe, legal, and regulated cannabis market in the world, but unfortunately illegal and unlicensed grows continue to proliferate,” Bonta said in a statement from the California Department of Justice. “The California Department of Justice’s CAMP task force works tirelessly each year to eradicate illegal grows and reclaim our public lands, but shutting down these grows is no longer enough. With the transition to EPIC, we’re taking the next step and building out our efforts to address the environmental and economic harms and labor exploitation associated with this underground market. I want to thank all our local, state, and federal partners for their longstanding collaboration on CAMP and ongoing commitment to tackle this problem through the EPIC task force.”

CAMP’s Mixed Legacy California

The CAMP program is a multi-agency task force first assembled in 1983 to combat California’s illicit cannabis cultivation industry. CAMP operations have been led by the California Department of Justice in partnership with the United States Forest Service; the United States Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and National Park Service; the California Department of Fish and Wildlife; the United States Department of Justice’s Drug Enforcement Administration; the California National Guard, and other federal, state and local agencies.

CAMP’s efforts receive mixed reviews from California’s cannabis community, with some legal cannabis business operators applauding efforts to reign in the state’s multibillion-dollar illicit marijuana economy. But others point to the campaign’s history of aggressive, paramilitary tactics that have included the use of helicopters and frequent display of automatic weapons and other firearms as a gross example of government overreach that has terrorized rural families and communities for decades.

CAMP Teams operated in California throughout the 2022 cannabis-growing season. In 26 counties, they conducted 449 operations, seized almost a million plants, and more than 200kilograms of cannabis. CAMP teams also recovered nearly 67,000 pounds worth of cultivation infrastructure, including waterlines and dams.

EPIC is available all year

As part of the year-round EPIC program, seasonal CAMP activities will be continued. EPIC will also look into crimes against illegal growers, such as environmental offenses or employment violations. Bonta said that workers at illicit cannabis cultivation sites are often victims of human trafficking “living in squalid conditions alone for months on end and with no way out. These workers are not those who make a living from the illegal marijuana industry. They’re being abused, they’re the victims. They are cogs in a much bigger and more organized machine.”

EPIC will also be tasked with combating the influence of organized crime in California’s illegal marijuana market. Karen Mouritsen, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s California state director, noted that 80% of the 44 illegal grow sites found on and around the agency’s properties in 2022 were connected to drug trafficking organizations.

“It’s clear that there are big challenges with respect to organized crime,” Bonta said. But he added that he expects better results with EPIC because the new effort by multiple agencies throughout the year “will make a big dent, a bit splash and lots of noise about our common priority to address the illicit marketplace, including at the highest levels.”

Following an announcement by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife last week, the EPIC transition follows the establishment of a multi-agency taskforce that spans multiple jurisdictions. This is to coordinate efforts against illegal cannabis operations and other criminal groups.

The new “Unified Cannabis Enforcement Taskforce,” which has been actively working since late summer, is co-chaired by the Department of Cannabis Control and CDFW and is being coordinated by the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) through its Homeland Security Division. Its mission is to align state efforts and improve enforcement coordination between federal, state, and local partners.

“We cannot allow harmful, illicit cannabis operations to lay waste to the environment or threaten our communities,” Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Cal OES and Newsom’s homeland security advisor, said in a statement from CDFW. “We are bringing together the combined law enforcement resources of our state, local and federal agencies in a coordinated enforcement action against these bad actors and criminal organizations.”