Law enforcement officers served search warrants at five unlicensed cannabis dispensaries in San Diego County this week, seizing $1.1 million in cash and 3,000 pounds of marijuana while taking six people into custody on various charges. The raids at the illegal pot shops in the suburbs of Lakeside, Chula Vista, and Spring Valley were conducted by deputies with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department on Tuesday.

Search warrants were also served at homes in San Diego and Jamul as well as a storage facility in Spring Valley as part of the enforcement operation. Sgt. Zheath Sanchez of the sheriff’s department said that the search warrants were obtained following “numerous community complaints related to unlicensed and illegal dispensaries, some located in residential neighborhoods and near local schools.”

Deputies arrested a 34-year-old Jamul man and a 28-year-old man from Michigan on suspicion of conspiracy and operating or maintaining a drug house; a 23-year-old man from San Diego on charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm; a 23-year-old Chula Vista woman on suspicion of possession of marijuana for sale and metal knuckles; and a 22-year-old woman from San Diego for suspicion of possession of marijuana for sale.

In addition to the 1.5 tons of cannabis flower, deputies seized marijuana edibles, cannabis concentrates, mushrooms suspected to be Psilocybin, and 20 firearms, including three semi-automatic rifles. Two of the unlicensed marijuana dispensaries were located in Spring Valley, two in Lakeside, and the fifth was in Chula Vista.

Illicit Cannabis Thriving In California

Scenes similar to the raids in San Diego County this week continue to take place throughout California, despite the legalization of recreational marijuana with the passage of Prop 64 in 2016. But with high regulatory costs and other barriers to entry coupled with the decisions of many local jurisdictions to opt-out of the legal industry, California’s unregulated cannabis market continues to thrive. Data from BDS Analytics and Arcview Market Research estimated California’s unlicensed cannabis market to be worth $8.1 billion in 2019, compared to only $3.1 billion in sales from licensed businesses.

“Despite some success during the first two years of legalized cannabis sales, the illicit market has flourished,” Democratic Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio told the Los Angeles Times last week. “In addition to dwindling tax revenues, the underground market presents public safety and health threats to California.”

To address the problem, Rubio has introduced a bill that would impose hefty fines on landlords, advertising platforms, and other businesses that provide services or other aid to unlicensed cannabis operators. The United Cannabis Business Association, a trade group representing licensed companies, asked Rubio to introduce the measure because it “brings much-needed support in enforcement.”

“The illicit cannabis market must be shut down to ensure that legal operators can see an increase of patients and consumers which creates union jobs while we contribute to local and the State of California’s tax revenues,” the group wrote in a letter to lawmakers.

But Ellen Komp, the deputy director of the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said expanding the state’s legal cannabis market would be a better approach to the proliferation of unlicensed cannabis. 

“In general we would rather see ‘carrots’ to assist people in securing commercial licenses by lowering the barriers to entry, rather than ‘sticks,’ be they criminal or civil,” she said.
Rubio’s bill, AB 2122, was passed by the California Assembly last month and has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee for consideration.

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