6 killings in likely cannabis dispute spotlight violence and risk in California’s illegal pot market


LOS ANGELES (AP) — The slayings of six men last week at a remote desert crossroads that authorities believe stemmed from a soured illegal cannabis deal spotlighted a longstanding problem in California: a thriving underground marijuana market despite years of legal sales that were expected to stamp it out.

The killings provided a tragic reminder of the violence that can come with illicit cannabis activity, including unlicensed growing operations, brash robberies from legal businesses and furtive illegal shipments to out-of-state vendors.

“The violence is getting worse. The stakes are getting higher,” said dispensary owner Jerred Kiloh, who also heads the United Cannabis Business Association, a Los Angeles-based trade group. He said many of the organization’s members have seen their dispensaries robbed one or more times, sometimes by the same thieves.

“We keep talking about what we know the problem is,” Kiloh said, “but we are not doing anything about it.”

Authorities found the bodies Jan. 23 in the Mojave Desert outside the sparsely populated community of El Mirage. Five suspects were arrested, and each face multiple charges, including six felony counts of murder. Two pleaded not guilty, and the remaining three were still scheduled to be arraigned. They were held without bail.

The area the bodies were found in, about 50 miles (80 km) northeast of Los Angeles, is known for illicit cannabis operations.

“This is a problem that is not really being talked about,” San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon Dicus lamented, calling on legislators to reform cannabis laws to “keep legalization but revert to harsher penalties for users of illegal pot.”

The killings occurred at a time when California’s heavily regulated legal cannabis industry continues to struggle while underground businesses sometimes operate in plain sight.

California has long been the nation’s largest cannabis producer, prized for its fragrant, powerful buds. Voters in 2016 approved Proposition 64 to legitimize and tax the multibillion-dollar industry, and the law stated boldly that the broad legal sales would “incapacitate the black market.” Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, who was lieutenant governor at the time, called the law a “game changer.”

Legal adult-use sales faced challenges from the start. The state’s illegal market had flourished for decades, anchored in the storied “Emerald Triangle” region in the northern end of the state. Not since the end of Prohibition in 1933 had an attempt been made to reshape such a vast illegal economy into a legal one.

Most consumers have continued to purchase pot in the illegal marketplace, where they avoid taxes that can approach 50% in some communities. Many California cities did not establish legal marijuana markets or banned commercial marijuana activity. Law enforcement, meanwhile, has been unable to keep up with the spread of illicit sales and growing.

Proposition 64 reduced potential criminal penalties for growing and selling cannabis from felonies to misdemeanors, punishable by up to a $500 fine and six months in jail. There are no active proposals in the Legislature this year to increase criminal penalties.

Dicus said in 2023 his department served 411 search warrants for illegal marijuana grow sites countywide and recovered $370 million. Deputies found 655,000 plants and 74,000 pounds (33,565 kilograms) of processed marijuana and 14 labs producing honey oil, a potent cannabis concentrate. Eleven search warrants were served directly in the desert area where the slayings occurred, he said.

“The reality is that Proposition 64, in the fine print, took illicit marijuana and moved it from a felony to a misdemeanor. And the reality of this is by allowing that we’ve unleashed a plague in California,” Dicus said at a news conference Monday.

Cannabis attorney Griffen Thorne noted that in 2023, state investigators served 24 search warrants against illegal operations between October and December and 188 for the year, far too little to disrupt a vast underground market that dwarfs the legal one.

He said violence is a predictable consequence of illegal activity and “that kind of thing is going to continue to happen so long as the state allows the illegal market to fester out of control.”

A legislative proposal that just passed the state Senate aims to expand the state and local agencies’ power to seize property and equipment associated with illegal grows.

The desert killings weren’t the first from cannabis disputes. In 2020, seven people were fatally shot at an illegal marijuana growing operation in a rural town in neighboring Riverside County. More than 20 people lived on the property, which had several makeshift dwellings used to manufacture honey oil.

While marijuana remains a controlled substance under federal law, 38 states have legalized medicinal marijuana and 24 have legalized broad, adult-use sales.

Kiloh and other industry experts predict the problems will get worse as legitimate operators unable to make money pull out of the industry. Leading cannabis companies have previously warned that the state’s legal industry could collapse without tax cuts and an expansion of retail sales.

“It’s tragic, and I think it’s a direct reflection of what this industry and this government have done,” Kiloh said. “We’ve invited organized crime to come back into California and compete for an illicit market.”

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