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More than a year after recreational marijuana became legal in California, the state is waging war against unlicensed pot shops and redoubling efforts to stamp out illegal marijuana farms, using National Guard troops.
"We work with law enforcement to look at big grows on public lands that have the deleterious environmental effects and pose a safety risk to folks that might be wanting to enjoy the public lands, for hiking or otherwise," said Lt. Col. Tom Keegan, a spokesman for the California National Guard.
The crackdown comes as the state's regulated marijuana industry continues to struggle with competition from the black market. California has seen the underground market thrive since recreational marijuana was legalized, something that also happened in Colorado about six years ago.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, an early backer of recreational marijuana use in the state, is leading the fight to stamp out California's black market. Additionally, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti last week called for big increases in the city's next budget to boost enforcement of hundreds of marijuana businesses in the city.
California took in $345 million in excise and cultivation taxes during 2018, but that was below the $643 million former Gov. Jerry Brown had forecast California would generate. A bill is pending in the California Legislature that would give legal cannabis businesses a temporary tax break to better compete with the underground market.
Newsom announced in February he would "boost the National Guard's statewide Counterdrug Task Force by redeploying up north to go after illegal cannabis farms, many of which are run by cartels." He said the illegal crops "are devastating our pristine forests, and are increasingly becoming fire hazards themselves."
Some pro-cannabis groups believe many cultivators want to become part of the regulated marketplace but have been frustrated by barriers to entry from local and state rules. There have been complaints about exorbitant taxes on legal retailers and cultivators.
"The system of temporary permits and to annual permits is kind of in major disarray at this point," said Michael Katz, co-founder of Emerald Exchange, a marketplace promoting cannabis growers in Northern California. "Instead of putting on a show and taking out the National Guard, there's a lot of regulatory fixes that we think should be offered to help more cultivators enter the regulated space."
The National Guard has participated in a Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, or CAMP, program since the early 1980s and received significant financial support over the years from the federal government.
Some of the National Guard troops slated for counterdrug operations recently were focused on assisting in President Donald Trump's U.S. border request. In February, Newsom rebuked Trump's "manufactured crisis" at the border by announcing plans to pull more than 250 troops from the southern border.
The governor is requesting that the Pentagon help cover costs for an additional 150 soldiers and airmen from the National Guard for the expanded counterdrug operations. But as of Wednesday, the state still had not heard back on its original request from Feb. 11, according to the National Guard spokesman.
A Pentagon spokesperson said via email they would look into the matter.
The National Guard conducts aerial observation over public lands with local and state law enforcement to find illegal marijuana farms. The Guard demonstrated its aviation assets last week in the Oroville area for law enforcement as the state prepares to unleash more troops to help with counterdrug efforts.
Activity on illegal grow sites on public lands tends to pick up in the spring months, especially in California's Emerald Triangle — a Northern California region including Trinity, Mendocino and Humboldt counties. By some estimates, up to 60 percent of the nation's illicit pot is grown in Northern California.
"We still have an overwhelming, and what I would characterize as a, catastrophic illegal marijuana problem in Siskiyou County and really the region," said Sheriff Jon Lopey of Siskiyou County, which borders Trinity and Humboldt counties. "So the black market hasn't been curtailed, but it's probably been accelerated."
According to Lopey, a flood of illicit marijuana has meant prices of weed have "precipitously dropped, so that the value is half of what it was last year. Most of the marijuana in my county is going back East because they're not getting that much money for it here."
The sheriff added that illegal pot farms in the region are frequently using toxic chemicals that are contaminating the watersheds and endangering fish and wildlife. Now, he said the legalization of hemp has complicated the fight against the farms, "because it looks like marijuana and smells like marijuana and sometimes it can be used to shield illicit marijuana grows."