California illegal pot seizures top $1.5 billion in value

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Authorities seized more than $1.5 billion worth of illegally grown marijuana plants in California this year — an amount an industry expert said is roughly equal to the state’s entire legal market — as part of an annual eradication program, officials said Monday.

The raids netted more than 950,000 plants from nearly 350 growing operation sites this year through the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting program, an effort known as CAMP that dates to 1983 and is considered the nation’s largest illegal marijuana eradication program.

Authorities could not estimate a street value of the plants seized and based their figures on wholesale prices of $1,600 per plant. But Jerred Kiloh, president of the United Cannabis Business Association, said wholesale costs are doubled for the retail market — meaning the enforcement operation netted more than $3 billion worth of illegally grown marijuana plants.

Consumers are projected to spend $3.1 billion in California’s legal cannabis industry and $8.1 billion in the illicit market this year, according to a report from industry advisers Arcview Market Research and BDS Analytics.

“That’s a lot of product,” Kiloh said of the program’s seizures. “That’s equal to our entire regulated market.”

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said nearly 150 people were arrested statewide and 168 weapons were seized during the execution of more than 120 search warrants. The state partners with local and federal agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, to target growing operations on public lands.

Officials said they encountered sophisticated growing operations that help fuel the state’s large black market, where consumers can avoid steep tax rates by buying in unlicensed dispensaries.

“Folks are going to grow this stuff because you can make money,” Becerra said Monday at a news conference.

But Kiloh pointed out that it’s not clear if the illegal grown plants were headed to California markets or other states. He said the raids gave him hope that they would be a deterrent to other illegal growers and retailers who use their products, but he noted that the CAMP program has been around for decades while the illicit market continues to thrive.

“Enforcement is going to be a long process,” he said.

Becerra pointed to the death of Brian Ishmael, a Northern California sheriff’s deputy who was killed last month while responding to a call regarding a reported theft from an illegal marijuana grow in the rural Sierra Nevada foothills, as an example of the dangers that law enforcement faces in combating the issue.

In 2018, officials said they seized more than 614,000 plants from 254 sites during their CAMP operations, when efforts were hampered last year because of the wildfires, said Jack Nelsen, a special agent supervisor with the attorney general’s office.

The illegal grows harm the state’s wildlife and waterways, officials said.

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