State regulators mounted dozens of raids against illegal marijuana retailers in Los Angeles this week, the largest crackdown to date against the city’s thriving black market, officials said Friday.
The state has been under pressure from California’s legal industry to do more to stop the underground pot economy, which in Los Angeles and other cities often operates in plain sight. According to some estimates, about 75% of sales in the state remain under the table, snatching profits from legal storefronts.
Investigators served search warrants at 24 unlicensed shops from Tuesday through Thursday. They seized $8.8 million in cannabis products and confiscated nearly 10,000 illegal vape pens and $129,000 in cash, officials said.
At one unlicensed cannabis dispensary raided Thursday afternoon in Palms, more than $300,000 in illegal products were seized.
Officers with the state Department of Consumer Affairs and Los Angeles Police Department served a search warrant about 1:50 p.m. to Save Greens at 11221 Venice Blvd., according to the LAPD and the Bureau of Cannabis Control.
They cited six people, whose charges are pending, and found more than 600 illegal vapes, according to the bureau.
The week’s crackdown was praised by the United Cannabis Business Assn., a Los Angeles-based industry group that has been urging the state to do more to shut down rogue operators.
“For a long time we have been playing a game of whack-a-mole, targeting and shutting down a small handful of illegal shops at a time, only to have them reopen days later in the same location or down the street,” said Jerred Kiloh, who heads the group.
California kicked off broad legal sales Jan. 1, 2018. But the illegal market has continued a bustling business, in part because consumers can avoid steep tax rates by buying in unlicensed dispensaries.
But there’s a trade-off for saving a buck. Illegal products have not met strict state testing standards and could be tainted by mold, pesticides, heavy metals — even human waste.
“In California, we have a challenge with the illegal cannabis market, and as we’re trying to stand up the legal industry, we’re also trying to minimize the illegal industry,” said Alex Traverso, spokesman for the Bureau of Cannabis Control. “Part of that is following up on complaints we receive about unlicensed shops, and a pretty large portion of the unlicensed shops happen to be in Southern California.”
The bureau receives hundreds of complaints about unlicensed dispensaries, Traverso said.
After serving a search warrant, officers will take “everything that’s not bolted down to the floor,” including any cannabis products or plants, to thwart a shop’s efforts to reopen, he said.
Ideally, investigators want to find a shop’s owner during a raid, but often they aren’t present; instead, employees at the shop might be arrested or cited, depending on several factors, he said.
In California, the black market for cannabis is three times the size of its regulated weed industry, a problem most glaring in Los Angeles.
A Times analysis in May found more than 200 illegal marijuana dispensaries operating in L.A.
“This is really a Los Angeles phenomenon…. I can’t tell you where there would be an unlicensed dispensary operating in Oakland or San Francisco,” Dale Gieringer, director of California’s branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, previously told The Times.
Attempts to reach Save Greens by phone and on its social media accounts were unsuccessful.
On the company’s Weedmaps page, two customers had already noted in their reviews that the store was closed.
“Rip to this local joint that would always come through on late night pick ups,” one user wrote. “Looks like everyone in the area is getting raided be safe.”
The state’s top cannabis regulator, Lori Ajax, signaled that more was to come. “We look forward to working with local jurisdictions and law enforcement as we continue to shut down unlicensed operators,” she said.