Why The Legal Cannabis Industry Wants California’s New “Top Cop” To Bust Marijuana

California's next Attorney General, Rob Bonta. Photo: Wiki Commons

Rob Bonta will be the first “top cop” in California history to be truly pro-marijuana.

The 49-year-old state Assemblyman, whose appointment to become the state’s next attorney general was announced Wednesday by Gov. Gavin Newsom, will likely be the most progressive person to lead the California Department of Justice in—well, ever.

Friendly to bail reform, tenant rights, immigration reform and health-care reform, Bonta has also for years been a staunch ally of marijuana legalization.

Bonta was one of the chief authors of the bill regulating the state’s cannabis industry, which — with legal sales in 2020 of roughly $4 billion — is (for now, still) the world’s largest weed marketplace.

Bonta also did cannabis workers a favor by requiring weed businesses to strike a limited deal with labor unions as a prerequisite for obtaining a sales license.

“Now more than ever it’s important that working people have a friend in the attorney general’s office,” said Jim Araby, a labor organizer with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5 in the San Francisco Bay Area. Bonta “will ensure that large corporations don’t have too much power, and that there will be a balance achieved.”

Bonta “has demonstrated himself to be one of the most effective and influential leaders in the Legislature during his tenure,” added Nate Bradley, a cannabis lobbyist and executive director of the Cannabis Consumer Policy Council, a Sacramento, Calif.-based policy shop.

As LA Weekly reported, just about everyone in California weed was thrilled Newsom picked Bonta to lead the state DOJ. What do they hope the pro-weed top cop will do with his power? For some cannabis business owners, it’s start cracking down on marijuana, for one.

By most estimates, California’s illicit cannabis marketplace is anywhere from twice to three times as big as the legal market. Unlicensed, unregulated (and, therefore, illegal) cannabis grows and dispensaries operate with relative impunity in Los Angeles, in the Bay Area, and mostly everywhere in between.

At least part of this is government’s fault. Many cities and counties in the state still ban marijuana sales or limit them so severely that demand has nowhere to go but the “traditional” market.

Some legacy growers — including people of color — can’t acquire or can’t afford licenses. Other consumers, when faced with the choice of spending $75 (plus taxes!) for 3.5 grams of cannabis at a licensed dispensary or spending half that for twice the weed from “their guy,” make the obvious economic choice.

It’s highly likely no amount of enforcement can ever make the illicit market go away forever. But the critique is also that the illicit market is threatening legalization — and, so far, law enforcement hasn’t demonstrated much interest in halting unlicensed open-air sales or providing the other services that (in theory) the taxes paid by legal businesses fund.

More then a few California marijuana merchants hope Attorney General Bonta reverses that trend, and uses law enforcement power to bust unregulated weed sales.

“The biggest thing that the attorney general can do is go after the illicit operators,” said Tom DiGiovanni, the chief financial officer of Oakland, Calif.-based Harborside, one of the state’s largest dispensaries. “That’s going to be the biggest help to the [cannabis] industry in California.”

As governor, Newsom has been generally supportive of legal cannabis through both his office and decisions at the state Bureau of Cannabis Control, the state marijuana regulatory agency.

“But there’s only so much the regulatory agency can do,” added DiGiovanni, who pointed specifically to the “pop-up” cannabis sales events, advertised relatively openly on social media, that so far have operated more or less freely.

“No one’s really doing anything about that,” he said. “It’s really hard to compete against folks who aren’t paying taxes… stomping out the illicit market, everyone wins with that. Consumers get better products, the legal market gets more customers, the state gets more tax revenue.”

Techniques Bonta could employ that aren’t punitive reruns of the drug war could include liens or other penalties levied against property owners or landlords who host illegal dispensaries or cultivation operations.

That would probably be a better look than helicopters, raids, and jack-booted busts that haul in low-level dealers or users – all of which runs counter to Bonta’s established image as a progressive and would infuriate his now-supporters among criminal-justice reform advocates.

“‘Wage the war on drugs, but do it gently, on our behalf?’ I have no sympathy for that,” said Kate Chatfield, a California defense attorney and justice-reform advocate. “That shows you the equity issues around weed… these are the powerful saying, ‘Take out the weak.’”

“I do want weed or whatever substance people are ingesting to be safe, and I don’t want there to be violence associated with it, obviously—but I don’t want make the state the perpetrators of violence,” she added. “I have less than no sympathy for that position.”

Fixing taxation or allowing more Californians easy access to cannabis – and encouraging Black and Brown entrepreneurs to enter the industry – isn’t the Department of Justice’s job.

Under Bonta, the DOJ might just choose to steer clear of weed altogether. What energy Bonta devotes to cannabis may end up being discouraging any return to old-school raids, among both the state law-enforcement agencies directly under his control and by both county sheriffs and local police – even if calls to do something just that are coming from cannabis sellers.