Federal enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act in states that have legalized cannabis has been a huge question mark for years, but especially so in California since the 2016 passage of Prop 64, which legalized medicinal and adult-use cannabis and laid the framework for a new regulatory regime. Almost two years later, that question remains, but certain trends have emerged, were reinforced, and now seem to be forging full speed ahead. Those trends suggest that (1) the Department of Justice is not engaging in a crackdown against cannabis businesses that are in compliance with state and local law, and (2) the state and the federal government have agreed to coordinate on enforcement actions where it furthers the priorities of both entities. So far, those priorities have been organized crime and illegal cultivation on public lands, and this week the latter priority got a big boost from both sides of the equation.
On the state side of things, a proposed state law extending the statute of limitations from one to three years for state enforcement actions against unlawful “conversion of timberland to nonforestry-related agricultural uses”—a move that targets illegal cannabis cultivation on public lands—has passed the state legislature and is now before Governor Brown for signature. The bill also clarifies that the limitations period does not begin to run until the state discovers the violation.
On the federal side of things, the Department of Justice issued a formal statement about the results of its summer-long collaborative project with the state and local governments to target and eradicate illegal cultivation operations on public lands, aka Operation Forest Watch, which we now know has been underway since at least October 2017 and also included the California National Guard. One important reason behind this effort was an unprecedented level of illegal toxic pesticides being used in unlicensed cannabis cultivation, some so powerful that a “quarter-teaspoon can kill a 300-pound bear.” Because cannabis grown using these dangerous pesticides cannot pass California’s stringent quality standards, it has been mostly shipped illegally to the Midwest and the East Coast, undermining both California and federal laws prohibiting diversion out of state.
The big-picture takeaway from this joint operation is that “federal authorities are concentrating their efforts on hazardous illegal grows on public land instead of targeting California’s new recreational marijuana industry, although marijuana remains illegal under federal law.” Another take on it is that federal and state cooperation on cannabis enforcement as it has been structured to date benefits both entities when priorities are aligned: The federal government furthers its goals of protecting public lands and public safety and targeting organized crime; while the state furthers those same goals in its own interests, and at the same time reinforces the state’s regulatory regime by incentivizing licensing and compliance and cracking down on the state’s illegal markets.
It remains to be seen what effect these joint enforcement actions, as well as California’s continued crackdown on unlicensed operators, will have on the state’s cannabis market writ large, but to date they have unquestionably proven beneficial to both parties, as well as all Californians who enjoy and want to preserve our forests.