California doubles down on illegal cannabis operations

And the drug war continues.

Doubling its collections in 2023, the state has seized more than 66,000 pounds of cannabis tied to the illicit trade for the second quarter ending June 30, the California Department of Cannabis Control reported.

The statewide retail value ($109.2 million) of the illegal product also amounts to a 104% increase from the previous quarter. Firearm seizures also went up, from four to 19 in the same period.

The results were made through the efforts of the United Cannabis Enforcement Taskforce, an ensemble formed last year of two-dozen law enforcement agencies statewide, including Fish and Wildlife, as well as a Homeland Security detail. The Northern California operations focus on Sacramento, along with pockets in the Central Valley and the East Bay. No busts were conducted in the North Bay, according to the report.

But that doesn’t mean they haven’t occurred. Two years ago, California State Parks reported it seized an illegal grow site at the Sonoma Coast State Park in Bodega Bay. The bust netted two arrests, 1,500 plants, 1,000 pounds of trash, pollutants and water diversion lines. Two men were arrested on suspicion of cannabis cultivation, gun possession and water diversion involving channeling water from Upper Willow Creek to the site.

The united task force often taps the state Department of Toxic Substances Control to assist in efforts related to pollutants often left behind at these grow sites.

“Through our expertise in addressing environmental concerns, including contamination, hazardous waste and banned pesticides, we collaborate to eliminate the adverse impact of the illegal cannabis market,” its Chief Investigator Hansen Pang said in a statement. In turn, he added, ridding the environment of the illegal suppliers helps promote “responsible growth of the cannabis industry.”

Support for law enforcement

Most legal stakeholders in the cannabis business agree that any effort to stomp out illicit suppliers is a win-win for the overall industry. While the legal cultivation market sat on the verge of a potential collapse in the last few years since growers produced a glut of product with not enough places to sell it, many legal farms blamed the competition on the illicit market.

The state’s task was simple. Get rid of the illegal growers, producers and sellers or face the potential of the legal market imploding.

But for the lead agency working alongside the state Department of Cannabis Control, Fish and Wildlife, the benefit needs to mean more than the economics.

“Our mission is to protect habitat,” said Frank Imbrie, California Fish and Wildlife Service assistant chief of law enforcement of the cannabis program. Imbrie was referring to the grow sites that illegally obtain water for the crops. The problem is exacerbated in drought years.

“In large part, illicit grows are pulling water illegally. This has a direct impact on habitat. They also use pesticides that cause contamination,” he added.

When asked how many busts would have to occur to make a significant dent in the illegal trade, Imbrie admitted the number is “difficult to quantify” at this stage.

“Right now, we know we have a big problem on our hands,” he said.

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, tech, energy, transportation, agriculture as well as banking and finance. She can be reached at 530-545-8662 or

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