The dark reality of legal weed in California

A long row of greenhouses are covered in plastic and filled with pot plants.
Authorities seized tens of millions of dollars worth of illegal marijuana grown in the Antelope Valley in June.
(L.A. County Sheriff’s Department)
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Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, Sept. 8. I’m Dorany Pineda, the Times’ books reporter, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

When Proposition 64, California’s landmark cannabis initiative, passed in 2016, it had sold voters on the promise that a legal market would wipe out the drug’s outlaw business and the violence and environmental disaster associated with it.

Instead, it’s done the opposite.

A Los Angeles Times investigation by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Paige St. John has found that illegal weed farms are flooding parts of rural California on a scale never before witnessed, exacerbating violence, labor exploitation, environmental damage and more. Police are overwhelmed and can raid only a small percentage of the farms; even then, the growers are often back in business within days.

[Read “The reality of legal weed in California: Huge illegal grows, violence, worker exploitation and deaths,” in The Times.]


To better understand the issues, St. John reviewed state, county and court records and interviewed scores of legal and illegal weed growers, local residents, laborers, law enforcement, community activists, market analysts and public officials. Her reporting reveals that the explosive growth has had profound and extensive consequences:

  • Illegal pot farms have exacerbated weed-related violence, occasionally including killings. Local residents described living in fear.
  • Labor exploitation is rampant. Workers often toil in dangerous conditions and are frequently cheated of wages. Since cannabis was legalized, 15 workers have died from carbon monoxide poisoning from generators and charcoal braziers.
  • Extreme cultivation is causing significant environmental damage. At a time of severe drought, millions of gallons of water are being taken from aquifers even as wells go dry. Banned, lethal pesticides and unchecked chemicals are being used.
  • Illegal cultivation fed a surplus that crashed wholesale prices last year. Small farms operating legally are unable to sell their crops, pushing them closer to financial ruin. “I’m barely hanging on,” one licensed cannabis grower in Humboldt County told St. John.

Although no hard data exist on the scale of the illegal cannabis market, it’s much larger than the licensed community. A Times analysis of satellite images covering thousands of square miles of the state showed that unlicensed operations in many of the largest cultivation areas outnumbered licensed farms by as much as 10 to 1.

It’s an eye-opening investigation. Read more here.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Fairview fire near Hemet that has killed two grows to 7,000 acres. Fire crews continued to battle the deadly blaze that had burned through 7,091 acres as of Wednesday morning, outpacing firefighters’ efforts to contain its spread. The Fairview fire, which remained at 5% containment, forced officials to expand evacuation orders as the flames moved dangerously close to homes and communities. Los Angeles Times

California fires are killing people before they can escape their homes, making seconds count. As the state’s wildfire death toll rose to nine, some officials said the sobering number underscored how the state’s climate-change-fueled blazes were outpacing emergency alert systems and posing new threats to residents. Los Angeles Times


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Indian action hit “RRR” eyes Oscars, sets Beyond Fest S.S. Rajamouli retrospective. Following the global success of India’s hit action blockbuster “RRR,” celebrated filmmaker S.S. Rajamouli is heading to Los Angeles this month for a major in-person career retrospective that could also kickstart the film’s Oscar hopes. Los Angeles Times

With libraries under threat, Literarian Award goes to a Watts-raised super librarian. Tracie D. Hall has spent most of her career working in service to others: as a curator, a librarian, an advocate for digital literacy and equitable access — and currently as the executive director of the American Library Assn. On Wednesday, the National Book Foundation announced Hall was the 2022 recipient of the annual Literarian Award for “outstanding service to the American literary community.” Los Angeles Times

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These days, waking up to current events can be, well, daunting. If you’re seeking a more balanced news diet, “The Times” podcast is for you. Gustavo Arellano, along with a diverse set of reporters from the award-winning L.A. Times newsroom, delivers the most interesting stories from the Los Angeles Times every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.


California fast-food wage law opponents begin effort to block it. Opponents of the FAST Recovery Act, a new California law that could set the minimum wage for the fast-food industry as high as $22 per hour next year, began an effort Tuesday to postpone its implementation and let voters decide whether to permanently block it in 2024. The act was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday. It is set to take effect Jan. 1 but would be suspended if the referendum, which would likely be on the ballot in November 2024, qualifies. Wall Street Journal

Karen Bass got a USC degree for free. It’s now pulling her into a federal corruption case. Federal prosecutors say the USC degree that Karen Bass, the leading contender to be L.A.’s next mayor, got for free years ago is important evidence in their corruption probe of a top university official and Mark Ridley-Thomas, the former L.A. County supervisor. Los Angeles Times



16 charged in L.A. County EBT fraud scheme that swiped funds from needy families. At least 16 people have been linked to an alleged fraud scheme that stole information and money from California electronic benefits transfer accountholders, pilfering federal funds intended to provide food assistance to families in need. The plot involved illegally accessing families’ EBT accounts by creating cloned cards to withdraw “large cash amounts” at ATMs, leaving families in the lurch when they needed those funds. Los Angeles Times

Pacoima woman gets home detention in drug case involving Marines. A Pacoima woman was sentenced this week to six months in home detention for her role in a drug trafficking ring that distributed narcotics — including oxycodone pills laced with fentanyl — to civilians and members of the U.S. Marine Corps, one of whom died from an overdose. O.C. Register

Inside the Sacramento Police Department’s new approach to seizing illegal guns. The city police force has taken a page from 2017 to combat gun violence now, with this simple logic: Get guns off the streets, gun crimes will drop. The department has laid out a strategy to combat the rising number of shootings, and gun seizures are part of it. Sacramento Bee

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California pushed to the edge by a relentless heat wave that broke the mold. A heat wave that has shattered temperature records nearly broke California’s overtaxed electric grid Tuesday evening, pushing it to the brink of rolling blackouts but narrowly averting widespread power loss. (A text alert spurred Californians to power down.) The drought has diminished hydropower, a low-cost resource used to quickly ramp up electricity. Solar energy levels off in the evening, when temperatures subside, but Californians are continuing to crank their air conditioning. Los Angeles Times

California set to become first in nation to test drinking water for microplastics. Microplastics are found everywhere — in the air, the soil, the ocean and, yes, likely drinking water. This week, California is set to become the first state in the country, and possibly the planet, to require water agencies to test for the tiny particles. San Francisco Chronicle


Column: ‘We just lost a giant.’ Sara Wan, fierce environmentalist and coastal defender, dies. The 1,100-mile California coast has lost a passionate defender and tireless champion. Sara Wan, a Malibu resident who served longer on the California Coastal Commission than anyone and was an environmental crusader for four decades, died Sunday after complications from recent surgery. She was 83. Los Angeles Times


All the weird things found under Southern California homes. As a structural assessor, Kyle Tourje’s job is to ensure people’s homes don’t slide down hills and pulverize their neighbors below. Vital as his work is, it’s also shocking: mummified cats, mouse fights, a den of black widows and even a human skull are just a few of the eerie and strange things he’s encountered. “We’ve seen anything you can imagine under or inside a home,” says Tourje. Los Angeles Times

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Los Angeles: Sunny, 98. San Diego: Cloudy, 93. San Francisco: Partly cloudy, 80. San Jose: Sunny, 101. Fresno: Scorching, 109. Sacramento: Scorching, 111.


Today’s California memory is from Gary Minar:

Back in the 1940s, a few of us young guys learned that we could enter the large L.A. storm drain tunnels below the streets by using a storm drain near Wilshire Country Club. A vast dark world was there, going out toward Ballona Creek near Culver City. We sometimes walked for miles until our flashlights went dim. We found all kinds of small discarded items and creatures, including a sweet lonely kitten. Such adventures!

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

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