Why Are So Many Pot Farmers Choosing to Stay in the Shadows?

We still have a few months to go before Prop 64 fully kicks in. But already, there are signs of trouble ahead.

From the New York Times:

More than nine months after California voted to legalize recreational marijuana, only a small share of the tens of thousands of cannabis farmers in Northern California have joined the system, according to law enforcement officers and cannabis growers.

Despite the promise of a legal marketplace, many growers are staying in the shadows, casting doubt on the promise of a billion-dollar tax windfall for the state and a smooth switch to a regulated market.

At the same time, environmental damage and crime associated with illegal cannabis businesses remain entrenched in the state despite legalization, law enforcement officials say.

“I know that the numbers don’t look great; there are a lot of folks that aren’t coming in,” said Hezekiah Allen, the executive director of the California Growers Association, a marijuana advocacy group. “People are losing faith in this process.”

Out of the thousands of growers estimated to be operating in Mendocino County right now, just 700 have applied for permits. As we reported last month, Sonoma County is experiencing a similar problem. They got “a trickle” when they were expecting an “avalanche,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins. They have since extended the application deadline

Of the 32,000 pot farmers estimated to be operating in the Emerald Triangle (Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties), Allen estimates that only 3,500 have signed up to go legit. The rest would rather stay underground and avoid the paperwork, the fees and the taxes, he said.

Critics say the law abets this with its trivial penalties for marijuana crimes. In Colorado, for instance, possession of large amounts of unregulated cannabis could get you convicted of a felony. But in California, it’s a misdemeanor. The risk of remaining in the black market just isn't that great.

Meanwhile, the repercussions of illegal pot farming continue to wreak havoc on the Northern parts of the state. Violent crime in Mendocino is seven times higher than in L.A. County. Environmental degradation as a result of illegal farming is similarly rampant in the Triangle.

Many members of law enforcement would like to see stiffer penalties for those who break the law.

“I think we can all agree that your average pot smoker shouldn’t be in prison,” said Shannon Barney with the Mendocino Sheriff’s Office. “But I think everybody can also agree that punishment for a major trafficker needs to be more severe.”

Until then, the crime pays.