California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced new efforts to address unlicensed marijuana cultivation in the state, saying that the market for illicit weed still outpaces the regulated cannabis industry. Bonta also announced that the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), the annual effort to eliminate illicit cannabis cultivation sites in California, had eradicated nearly one million unlicensed cannabis plants this year.
“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 said that CAMP had eliminated nearly one million illicit cannabis plants in 2022, operating in 26 counties throughout California. The attorney general also announced that the annual CAMP program, which typically operates for a period of about three months during the marijuana growing season, would be enhanced to include operations to address the unlicensed cannabis market throughout the year. 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 in 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.
Over the course of the 2022 cannabis growing season, CAMP teams operated throughout California, conducting 449 operations in 26 counties, seizing nearly a million unlicensed plants and more than 200,000 pounds of processed cannabis. Law enforcement officers also recovered 184 weapons and removed nearly 67,000 pounds of cultivation infrastructure including dams, water lines and containers of toxic chemicals such as pesticides and illegal fertilizers.
EPIC Will Work Year-Round
The seasonal CAMP efforts will continue as part of the new year-round EPIC program. EPIC will also investigate crimes including environmental offenses and employment violations against illegal growers. 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 are not the people who are profiting from the illegal cannabis 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.”
Graham Farrar, the co-founder and president of California licensed cannabis company Glass House Group, called on officials to reform the state’s cannabis tax structure and to focus EPIC’s efforts on unlicensed dispensaries.
“While no one wants to see California’s legal cannabis market succeed more than Glass House does, CAMP is a failed policy, and giving it a new name doesn’t change that,” Farrar wrote in an email to High Times. “We continue to believe that the best solution is less taxes and more retail outlets for licensed growers so that they have a level playing field to eliminate the illicit market by out-competing it. We strongly encourage the AG and local jurisdictions to focus enforcement on illicit retail activities, which are more threatening to the legal cannabis market today.”
The transition to EPIC follows an announcement last week from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) that California Governor Gavin Newsom has directed the creation of a new multi-agency, cross-jurisdictional taskforce designed to better coordinate efforts to fight illegal cannabis operations and international criminal organizations.
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. The task force has been tasked with aligning state efforts and increasing enforcement coordination between state, local and federal 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.”