‘We are overwhelmed’: Some California police fear more crime with marijuana legalization

Some California police fear more crime with marijuana legalization
Some California police fear more crime with marijuana legalization
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Licensed businesses across California can begin legally growing and selling marijuana for recreational use Monday, and a hodgepodge of enforcement agencies will be trying to make sure they adhere to a slew of new pot laws.

Because no single agency has overarching responsibility, supporters and opponents of legalization worry how well the laws will be followed.

Three state agencies will issue a combined 19 types of permits to growers, retailers, manufacturers and distributors. Each agency has enforcement officers tasked with cracking down on unlicensed operators.


In addition, other state agencies such as the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Narcotic Enforcement Bureau said they will rely on marijuana task forces already in place to continue eradicating illegal growers and sellers.

The newly created state Bureau of Cannabis Control, which licenses retail outlets, said it has hired several officers to help crack down on unlicensed shops and plans to hire more in the coming months. But much of the work of arresting illegal operators will still rely on sheriffs and police departments.

“We are a pretty small operation,” bureau spokesman Alex Traverso said.

He said about eight enforcement officers will be in place Jan. 1, though bureau chief Lori Ajax said enforcement won’t be a priority in the first months of the new year as the agency focuses on getting retailers licensed.

The bureau has issued fewer than 200 temporary business licenses so far. That’s a fraction of what ultimately will be distributed once Los Angeles, San Francisco and other major local governments start issuing their own licenses, which are required to get a state permit.

A small number of retail shops from Berkeley to San Diego say the will open New Year’s Day.

Although an increasing number of states have legalized marijuana in one form or another, all uses of the drug remain illegal under federal law. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions has said federal authorities still are contemplating how they will enforce pot laws in California.


Assemblyman Tom Lackey has introduced legislation that would make the California Highway Patrol the point agency for enforcing state marijuana laws, especially those seeking to stem the flow of weed out of state.

“If we want to avoid intervention from the federal government, we need to do everything we can to crack down on illegal activity and prevent cannabis from being exported,” the Palmdale Republican said. “Without a central point for coordinating action statewide, accomplishing this will be a huge challenge.”

The bill will be considered when legislative sessions resume in January.

Ajax worked for 20 years in the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Department before Gov. Jerry Brown appointed her to run the cannabis bureau. She said regulating marijuana is more complicated than policing alcohol because counties and cities have considerable authority over pot.

State laws mandate that consumers be at least 21, that businesses not be within 600 feet of schools and must close by 10 p.m. They’re also required to have 24-hour video surveillance.

Counties and cities have similar requirements with a few twists. Oakland city officials, citing disparate marijuana arrest records, have given applicants convicted of pot-related felonies preference in obtaining permits in certain neighborhoods.

Several counties and cities used existing medical marijuana laws to adopt recreational-use rules by striking the word “medical” from the ordinances, keeping in place existing local tax rates.


Marijuana businesses also will be required to pay state taxes. Some of the tax revenue is earmarked for enforcement, but sheriffs in several counties say they’re already pouring resources into marijuana enforcement.

Siskiyou County leaders recently declared a state of emergency and called on the governor to assist the sheriff with eradicating an influx of illegal farms. The county banned commercial cultivation, but that hasn’t stopped a migration of marijuana farmers snapping up cheap land in remote Northern California.

“We are overwhelmed,” Sheriff Jon Lopey said.

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman has similar concerns in a county that has legalized marijuana in the heart of the fabled pot growing region called the Emerald Triangle.

“Please do not continue to say that marijuana is a totally harmless herb that God put on this Earth, and we don’t know why we’re fighting over it,” he told county supervisors, who he said were overlooking the criminal aspects of growing marijuana.

In Los Angeles County, sheriff’s officials are preparing to see a possible increase in marijuana dispensary robberies and drivers who are high behind the wheel.

Sheriff Jim McDonnell said he believes legalization will be “eye-opening for a lot of people.”


“The public’s perception is that weed is innocuous, that this is something they did 40 years ago and it is no big deal,” he said. “Well, today’s marijuana is not yesterday’s marijuana. The active ingredient, THC, is so much higher today than back 40 years ago.”

In some cases, the farmers are planting on government lands hidden deep in forests patrolled by state wildlife wardens. So-called guerrilla farms illegally set up on public property or remote private property without the owners’ knowledge have troubled rural law enforcement officials and federal authorities for years.

California’s Fish and Wildlife Department created a marijuana enforcement team three years ago to stem illegal gardens in the state’s forests. The agency also created Watershed Enforcement Teams to crack down on marijuana farmers who illegally divert streams, use banned pesticides or otherwise harm the environment.

Fish and Game Capt. Paul Foy said the department has no plans to change its enforcement strategy after Jan. 1 and will continue to concentrate on environmental crimes and illegal farms on public lands.

An estimated 1,000 illegal farms controlled by organized crime operate on public property in California, he said.

“We’re going to keep on keeping on with enforcement,” Foy said. “We stay busy.”