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Violence, Drug Busts, and Black Market Weed Take Over California's Desert Communities

So much for the whole legal marijuana will curb illegal activity thing.

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Many assumed legalization would curb illegal marijuana sales around the country, but it’s not happening. At least not yet. There’s still a lot of black market weed out there, and the cops are on the hunt for it and those growing it.

Case in point: The more than 373,000 plants and 33,480 pounds of harvested pot seized in Southern California this past June, all from illegal grow sites in the Antelope Valley north of Los Angeles. Street value is estimated to be $1.2 billion.

RELATED: As the Legal Cannabis Market Grows, the Illegal Market Shrinks

That's a lot of weed

L.A. County sheriff Alex Villanueva was quick to tout the bust, a 10-day operation that’s considered to be the largest weed removal effort of its kind for the department. That’s on the heels of a June bust of illegal farms and greenhouses that led to 23 arrests and the seizure of millions of dollars’ worth of weed in the Mojave Desert. 

Villanueva said there have been at least 500 illegal grow sites found this year in the area alone, and those are just the ones they’ve found.

“What we want to do is send a clear and loud message to all the cartels and anyone doing illegal operations in the high desert, ‘your days here are over and we’re coming for you,’” the sheriff said.

RELATED: Black Market Weed Is Still Popular In Some States, But It's Also Very Dangerous

The black market grows

The assumption that black market weed would disappear when everything went legal was naive at best. Even with more states legalizing marijuana — that’s 18 states plus the District of Columbia where it’s now legal to buy and consume recreationally, and 36 plus D.C. who have approved medical marijuana — there are illegal grow sites up and down the West Coast to Colorado and Massachusetts. 

Things were trending downward during the pandemic: A report in 2020 suggested the legal market was winning the battle helping decrease the illegal market. 

But no one told that to the “cartels” running the greenhouses in the Mojave Desert and Antelope Valley. Apparently their activity increased exponentially, bringing with it a litany of issues from environmental concerns, water theft, forcing minors and undocumented immigrants to work the farms, and violence.

Not only is it negatively affecting sleepy communities like Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree, it’s putting the kibosh on the legal market, says Adam Spiker, executive director of the nonprofit Southern California Coalition, the Southland’s largest marijuana trade association. He said the transformation of the desert landscape is another sign that Prop. 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act passed in 2016 to legalize cannabis in California, is "failing.”

“There are more illicit pot farms than ever,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “And they are undercutting legal growers so severely that they can’t survive under the law.”